In 1940, 18-year-old Marcel Ravidat was out walking his dog Robot in the French countryside when Robot fell in a hole and disappeared. Upon closer inspection, Ravidat realized it was not just a hole, but an entrance to a cave. He gathered his friends and some lanterns and the teenagers went spelunking.
What they discovered that day was astonishing. The walls and ceiling of the caves were covered in hundreds of Paleolithic drawings. These drawings, created with mineral pigments and charcoal, are now known as the Lascaux Paintings and are at least 17,000 years old.
These images included many, many animals. Horses, stags, lions, bison, bears, birds, deer, and ibex graced the walls. None of that is surprising. The mystery lies in what isn’t depicted.
Reindeer. Of the hundreds of images, none are of reindeer.
Wondering why this is surprising? Well, 17,000 years ago, enormous reindeer herds roamed free across what is now France. They were so plentiful, they were most certainly the mainstay of early man’s diet. In fact, based on the number of reindeer bones that have been found at ancient settlements, we can estimate that, supplemented with berries and possibly root vegetables, reindeer was almost all they ate.
Both art historians and anthropologists have puzzled about Lascaux for years. “Where are the reindeer paintings?” they wonder.
I’m not surprised by this at all. You see, those early men weren’t drawing what they had. They were drawing what they wanted.
They imagined a life of more. For them, it was more on the menu. I can imagine them grousing as they chewed yet another strip of reindeer jerky, choking with dissatisfaction. They longed for horse meat, bison meat, rhino meat. They took the ubiquitous reindeer meat for granted, dreamed instead of something scarcer. Something rarer. Something else.
We haven’t evolved that much. I see this in yoga class all the time. When I ask my students to sit still and breathe, they fidget and sigh, desperate to start moving. Then I lead them through sun salutes, and suddenly they can’t wait until the end of class to lie down and rest. It’s deeply human to be dissatisfied with the moment.
How do we stop taking the reindeer meat for granted?
Last week, Izzie asked me to help her translate her French homework. It was a conversation between two people, Arnaud and Beatrice. We listened to the short segment and tried to parse out what was being said. Then we typed, en Francais, what we thought we heard and the computer translated it for us. Beatrice seemed to be asking Arnaud why he had come to her house. The translation spat out two options:
What brings you here today?
That seemed to fit the conversation between Beatrice and Arnaud. But I far prefer the other translation:
What good things have brought you here today?
The ever-charming Beatrice has quite the way with words, doesn’t she? What good things have brought you here today?
The good things abound, but the consistent and reliable are easy to take for granted. I think of all the blessings that brought me here today. The hot coffee and snuggly cat that made it easier to get out of bed this morning. Lungs to fuel my meditation and a spine that willingly flowed through some down dogs. Running water for a hot shower. Lovely people who happily pay to take my yoga classes. Electricity that runs the laptop that I am writing on at this very moment.
Because these things – our personal reindeer meat – are so reliable, it’s easy to assume they will always be there. They often have to go missing before we notice them at all. The water heater busts, and suddenly we remember what a blessing a hot shower is. So take a moment right now to pause and reflect: What good things have brought you here today?