THIS SEEMED like a good week to revisit the Ice Age art show which is halfway through its stay at the National Geographic. It closes Oct. 31.
The best part of it is the people.
You've probably seen the bulls and bison drawings from the Lascaux cave, and maybe the hilariously sexual Venus of Willendorf, and possibly even the 12,000-year-old Irish elk antlers, 11 astonishing feet wide.
But that photo of three running children's footprints in the sand at the cave of Niaux: It gets you. The sand was ankle-deep and evidently wet, because the steps seem to bog down. Were they fleeing from some adult painting ritual that they had tried to peek at? Were they playing tag? How did their shouts ring in the deep cave?
We think of cavemen, Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals, dressed in skins and wielding stone axes, hairy grunting creatures . . . It is a shock to realize that they were people.
Engraved figures from La Marche in France show old and young people in various positions, some apparently in prayer. They could be Daumier sketches. One bearded, mustachioed man wears a leathery cap like the preserved prehistoric Scandinavian bog man recently exhumed. The drawings were found in a shelter with tools and ornaments. Were they part of a ritual?
Surely art was a holy act in those times: Perhaps the magical transfer of an animal to a two-dimensional figure on a wall gave the priest-artist some power over the real animal. Why do some remote peoples even today believe the camera steals their souls?
There had to be magic in the haunting handprints of Gargas, 200 of them stenciled with wood-smoke on the stone cave walls, like negatives. Some hands are missing fingers. They were actual individuals, then, who took time out to hold a hand against the rock while a smoking torch blackened the surface.
The show, put together by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, lasts through October. Superbly mounted, with blowups of smaller artworks like antler scrimshaw and fine photographic murals of the larger pieces, it contains 240 objects, from a mummified 12,000-year-old mammoth foot with bright red hair -- that must have been some flashy mammoth -- to a necklace of beautifully incised ibex heads.
Though pictures and their captions sometimes stray apart, the show is worth studying to clarify the succession of events in the Ice Age that lasted from 35,000 to 10,000 B.C. and covered the northern halves of three continents. The richest variety of plants and animals was found on the fringes, southern France and northern Spain, for instance, where the winter sun could be warm. Everything from chamois to lions, from bison to hairy rhinos roamed those hills.
Famous cave pictures are reproduced here: the Lascaux frieze with its mysterious spotted straight-horned animal, and the magnificent charcoal horse from Le Portal that could have come right off a Chinese scroll. But some of the smaller works, vastly magnified in accompanying photographs, are even more exciting in their way, especially an intricately detailed engraving of a bison licking its back, an immemorial gesture acutely observed and remembered by an artist who had no zoo to go back to for reference.
On the floor of a cave near an Ice Age sculpture of two bison were found little rolled clay cylinders, pictured in the exhibit. They were to be horns, but the artist rejected them. Anyone who has rolled a clay cylinder knows that if it buckles or flattens out, you might as well give up on it. Somehow, this humble evidence of humanity is the most appealing thing in the show.