CHICAGO (CBS) — Prehistoric cave paintings so fragile they’re sealed from human view are coming to the Field Museum of Natural History in replica next March.

Yves Coppens, chairman of the Lascaux Cave committee, said the exhibit is comparable to a display of artwork by Picasso.

Four teenage explorers found 20,000-year-old paintings of bison, bulls, birds and one human being when they stumbled into the Lascaux Cave in southwestern France in 1940.

“We realized that, even at that time, their brain was as perfect as ours,” French Senator Bernard Cazeau – speaking through a translator – said of the cave painters.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports

Field Museum paleo-anthropologist James Phillips said the paintings were drawn by artists with a mindset particular to a difficult time.

“I would wager they were fearful, because the paintings are not in their living sites. They lived in rock shelters, away. Caves are in the Earth, and therefore, they’re dark,” he said.

Subsequent visits by people bringing in humidity and pollution caused such rapid degradation of the cave paintings that the Lascaux Cave was sealed to all but a few scientists and caretakers.

The Field Museum underscored the importance of the coming exhibit by bringing in Cazeau, and French Consul General Graham Paul.

The museum said, “The cave paintings of Lascaux are the world’s premier example of pre-historic art. French officials closed the cave in 1963, but now the cave has been recreated with full sized replicas of the artworks, including a 17-foot-long bull, and a pair of overlapping bison, which highlights mankind’s early use of perspective.”

The exhibit comes to the Field Museum starting March 20, 2013.

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