The Riddle of the Lascaux Caves: World’s First Written Poem

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The Riddle of the Lascaux Caves: World’s First Written Poem

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In September 1940 a French schoolboy, Marcel Ravidat was playing with his dog near the village of Montignac in south-western France. When the dog, Robot, fell into a hole Marcel fetched three friends to help him look for the dog. What they discovered was a cave system whose walls were painted with thousands of representations of animals,humans and plants.

The schoolboys had stumbled on the famous Lascaux caves whose brilliant vivid paintings have been dated back to the Paleolithic era, some 17,000 years ago. Among the breathtaking lifelike depictions of horses, bulls, aurochs, stags, bison – even a bear and a rhinoceros were dozens of strange symbols, lines, grids, coloured squares but these were basically ignored as researchers concentrated on the animals.

What no one knew was that later in the same year that the boys stumbled on the caves, a man called Champerret, a code-breaker working for the French resistance was sent to the caves to assess their suitability as a hiding-place for members of the resistance.

While there he made dozens of drawings of the strange symbols on the cave walls and took them back to his chateau where he went to work on them to see if he could find meaning in this strange ‘code’.

In 1942 the Gestapo raided the chateau and Champerret and his notebooks vanished until, many year later, the chateau’s new owner discovered the notebooks hidden in a wooden crate. He passed them on to his friend, Professor Philip Terry an English lecturer at the University of Essex.

Professor Terry is, according to Essex University, ‘an expert in the theory and practice of creative writing, particularly the work of Oulipo, experimental translation, and
hybrid forms of writing and poetry.’ Professor Terry sat on the works of Champerret for a few years but whe he began to translate them from French to English he made an astonishing discovery. Champerret had decoded the mysterious symbols in Lascaux: in Champerret’s words, ‘A sign resembling an upturned question mark might represent a club: a sign resembling a three-quarter circle with a dot in the middle, an eye…’

What he deduced from these was the world’s first written piece of poetry. See a sample below:
 The shrill song
          of the birds
               fills the swaying trees
     the hoarse bellow 
          of the red deer
               echoes in the river valley
     the rasping roar
          of the cave bears
               fills the black mountains


Professor Terry caused something of a sensation in academia when he released his findings in a book published a few weeks ago by Carcanet Classics called The Lascaux Notebooks causing one reviewer from the University of Falmouth to comment: ‘This book will, I am sure be of interest to not only poets but all those interested in history, shamanism, ethnography, codes, caves, dissimulation, creative writing and the roots of documented utterance. It will, I am sure, become an influential and seminal book, one which will illuminate the previously dark and shadow-filled caves of formative language.’

The Lascaux Notebooks was also featured in a prominent position in The London Review of Books.

And now comes the most extraordinary part of this story: it’s all a fake. Champerret never existed, nor did his diaries. The Lascaux Notebooks is a complete hoax
perpetrated by Terry.

The reviewer who castigated Terry for reading the symbols from left to right and thus interpreting them wrongly in a ‘western empiricist colonial way of language thinking’ must be feeling pretty silly.

Terry isn’t the first person to perpetrate a literary hoax on the world of academia and he won’t I hope, be the last. Still I personally find this absolutely wonderful and I think when Professor Terry decides to leave Essex University there’s a place for him here at Happy Ali!

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