“Robot! Robot! Where are you?”
It was the end of summer 1940. The Second World War was on, and France was a key battleground. Outside the country’s occupied zone, in the southern region of Dordogne, five boys and their dog went hunting in the woods.
As they walked a path along the Vezere River, Robot, a white mutt with a brown patch around his left eye, ran ahead. The dog was drawn to a hole in the ground covered by foliage. The boys hurried to catch up with Robot, but once they reached the hole their dog had disappeared.
The name must have echoed throughout the woods with delicious peculiarity. It was an especially unusual name for 1940, the word “robot” having been coined only 20 years earlier in the science fiction play R.U.R. by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The word has retained its futuristic charge, sometimes menacing, other times campy — the vision of mechanical beings the word inspires has long since been bound up with the shape of things to come for our civilization. The associations serve our story only too well, making the next twist that much more ironic and resonant.
When Robot responded to the boys’ call, his bark was muffled from inside the entrance of a cave beneath the Lascaux Manor.
Robot had just made the latest — and arguably most dazzling — discovery of prehistoric art yet along the French-Spanish border.
For more than fifty years preceding that summer, people found prehistoric cave paintings around the region. The first finding was in 1879, in the Cantabrian Mountains in northern Spain. That time the crude images were found by the 9-year-old daughter of Don Marcelino de Sautuola, an amateur archaeologist and owner of the land under which hid the Altamira cave.
Indeed, from the end of the 19th century to the start of the Second World War, cave art was regularly discovered in Europe. However, the significance of the art buried deep in the Lascaux cave complex was its sophistication. The renderings of horses and deer were unusually fine and closely observed, going beyond the simple drawings found in the region’s other caves. The art mapped a creative revolution that stretched upwards of 20,000 years.
What our mongrel-hero seemed to stumble upon that September day was nothing less than the evidence of our ancestors’ sensory evolution.
Robot’s story can be pulled apart in many directions to signify a number of things. Of course, to say this dog “discovered” this art is stretching the truth a little. What Robot really found was a hole in the ground — the cave, the paintings, and the significance of what had been hidden in the Lascaux caves for thousands of years were for the boys to recognize. But the role played by luck doesn’t diminish the odd poetry of that September day, when the dog with the futuristic name happened upon a precious record of our past.