Melody of the Black Cow

Music for the Lithophone

On the east wall of the Nave in Lascaux, there is a panel known as the Panel of the Great Black Cow. The cow’s rear hoofs are touching two square shapes with each square being further subdivided into nine smaller squares. There is another square nearby, which is being brushed by the cow's tail. So what does this image portray?

My hypothesis is that the cow is tapping out a rhythm with her feet, and swishing her tail in time with the music. Each colour represents a musical note, coded according to elements of the wŭ xíng 五行; earth, water and fire are represented by the colours yellow, black and red, which in turn become doh, la, so. If we assume that our ancestor’s used the fixed doh scale, that is still used in France today, the notes are equivalent to C, A and G.

There is a fourth colour, described as mauve or violet. I have taken this to be blue, which represents the note mi; equivalent to E.

The resulting music can be seen below.

Image: Lynn Fawcett
Image: Lynn Fawcett

The music appears to consist of bars of three beats each. With letter notation, it looks like the tables below.

Image: Lynn Fawcett
Image: Lynn Fawcett

I would expect the music to be read from top to bottom and right to left. Hence, the piece begins with C A G, followed by G G C.

One more thing to consider is that the hoofs may indicate a higher pitch, and the tail a lower pitch. Thus the last group of nine notes might be played in a lower pitch than the others.

As for the symbol, it may be connected to wéi , which can mean to surround. From this it is possible to get the idea of being surrounded by colours. The colours are sounds set in an array, in other words music.

Another Chinese character of interest is qŭ , which means a tune or a melody. The addition of a few extra lines, would give us a symbol similar to the ones below the Great Black Cow.

The cow may be playing for a procession of horses. I have therefore guessed that the instrument would have been a lithophone.

Hidden within the body of the cow is the image of a rearing horse. The horse is placed just before the coloured squares. Its ears are pointing forwards towards the squares. Was the horse frightened by the noise?

Author's Note

I can’t be sure of the colours of the squares from the images available on the web. For the left and right hand arrays, I have verified the colours by reference to Emile Chalmin et al.’s study of the pigments¹. I have not been able to verify the colours used for the central array. Therefore, I have prepared this article on the basis of what appears most likely to me. If the actual colours in Lascaux are different, do please let me know.



1. Emilie Chalmin; Michel Menu; Marie-Pierre Pomiès; Colette Vignaud; Norbert Aujoulat; Jean-Michel Geneste: Les blasons de Lascaux: L'Anthropologie, Volume 108, Issue 5, December 2004, Pages 571–592, 4. Couleurs et chronologie des blasons Fig. 2: Elsevier Science B.V., Amsterdam