I’ve led a few hiking trips in the Dordogne and Lot valleys over the last two decades, visiting a few painted caves along the way, but recently I helped with another trip that visited six of the area’s most valuable prehistoric caves and two replica caves. Almost every day we were visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites, even including the replicas of the Lascaux and Chauvet caves – impressive, but I have to say that the World Heritage List is suffering from clear over-inflation (following this I went to Normandy and Brittany, where both the D-Day beaches and Carnac are candidates for WHL status). To be clear, virtually all caves are prehistoric, but the term ‘prehistoric caves’ refers to those that have relics of prehistoric cultures, and especially the rock paintings and engravings that make this area so amazing for anyone who’s interested in ancient cultures.
We moved from west to east, and from the newest site to the oldest. Archeologists have laid out a grid of prehistoric cultures, defined mainly by their increasingly sophisticated techniques for making flint tools, and named after the various sites where they were first identified. The oldest ones are Neanderthal, the more recent ones Homo sapiens (including Cro-Magnon man) – but the distinction between Neanderthal and sapiens is less and less important, and it’s by no means clear that they are even separate species (in any case both are descended from Homo heidelbergensis). It’s now clear that they interbred – about 20% of their DNA is shared, and everyone of us nowadays has up to 4% of Neanderthal DNA in our genome. Neanderthals had a larger brain than us, they buried their dead carefully and looked after their sick and elderly; they had big babies (so perhaps a longer gestation period than us), and fair skin and blond or red hair. Over 160,000 years ago, Neanderthals developed the Levallois technique of making multiple flint blades from one piece of stone, which required an abstract conception of a series of tools being within that flint, and possibly required language too. And the Mousterian culture (from 160,000 to 40,000 years ago), named after the Le Moustier rock shelters 10km northeast of Les Eyzies, is associated with Neanderthal man here but with Homo sapiens in North Africa and the Middle East. After this, about 40,000 years ago (50,000 years ago in Africa), there was an evolutionary Great Leap Forward, when suddenly humans started to make large amounts of tools in specialised shapes, using bone as well as stone, as well as multi-part weapons, twine nets and sewn clothing, as well as cave art, sculptures and musical instruments. Just as the megafauna worldwide vanished when Homo sapiens arrived, so too the Neanderthals disappeared – but it’s too easy to say they were killed, they were clearly out-competed and to some extent at least absorbed. In fact the last Neanderthals apparently survived in Gibraltar until as recently as 28,000 years ago (yes, that site is also a candidate for the World Heritage List).
People also talk of Ice Age art, as the last major glaciation lasted from about 110,000 to 10,000 years ago (with the last maximum from about 24,000 to 12,000 years ago) – but don’t think that there were glaciers in this area, it was in fact mostly open steppe-tundra, like most of western and central Europe and Eurasia (although most of Britain, Scandinavia and the Alps were under ice). Many of the caves were later blocked by mudslides and rockfalls, after the climate changed, which preserved them from climatic or human interference until the end of the nineteenth century. Nowadays it’s a lush green area with winding rivers (the Dordogne and Vézère) and limestone cliffs with many caves and even more rock overhangs that served as shelters.
We started with Lascaux, which was painted by Homo sapiens about 15,000 years ago, during the Magdalenian period – this was the first cave to be closed to the public (due to algae and calcite deposits appearing, as the climate inside the cave was changed by human visitors) and replaced by a replica. When Lascaux-2 opened a couple of hundred metres away in 1983, it was greeted as an astonishing technical feat and was very busy for much of the year; however, in 2016 a new high-tech interpretation centre known as Lascaux-4 opened down on the edge of the village of Montignac (Lascaux-3 is a touring exhibition, launched in 2012), incorporating a far more detailed and complete replica. Almost all visitors now go there, but we’ve stuck with Lascaux-2, now blissfully peaceful, where the excellent guides can give you their full attention. Fittingly, it is now itself a historical monument. The paintings really are amazing, in a distinctive style that show horses and bison with small heads, short legs and curved bellies; there are also some squares or grids in an abstract pattern that clearly had some meaning.
Les Eyzies, the Font de Gaume and nearby
We moved on to Les Eyzies, a village that is known as the Capital of Prehistory – indeed, it’s home to the Musée National de Préhistoire, which has excellent coverage – one tends just to think in terms of cave art, but there’s a huge amount of other material here, such as flint blades and fat female figures, although the texts are only in French.
You can also visit the adjacent Abri Pataud (Pataud Shelter, an overhanging rock which sheltered more than forty groups of wandering reindeer hunters between 35,000 and 20,000 years ago, with a carving of an ibex on the ceiling), and the Abri Cro-Magnon (Magnon’s Hole Shelter), near the station, where the first clearly modern human remains (buried around 28,000 years ago) were found in 1868 by workers building the railway.
On the eastern edge of town is the fabulous Font de Gaume, the only cave in France with polychrome paintings that is still open to the public; only 78 people are allowed in per day and you can’t book ahead (apart from a small quota for groups) – you really do have to get up early and queue at the ticket office from about 07.00 (it opens at 09.30). There are benches with numbered seats outside, so you know where you are in the queue, And you can’t buy tickets for someone else – everyone has to be there at the time of purchase.
From the ticket office it’s a 400-metre walk to the entry, where a medieval building used to stand (you can still see the square holes where beams were fixed); there were originally paintings from right inside the entry but these did not survive. Beyond what were two narrow passages (now widened and with the floor lowered) you’ll come to the first paintings – in all there are 200 here, mostly created around 14,000 years ago in the Magdalenian period, of bison, horses, mammoths and reindeer, as well as one woolly rhino and one wolf (you won’t see all of these on the tour).
The Font de Gaume may actually be connected to the Combarelles cave – they’re just a couple of kilometres apart, and were discovered a mere four days apart, in 1901 (the caves were known before then, of course, but the art was not). Visitor numbers are severely limited here too, with just 42 people allowed in per day (buy your tickets at the Font de Gaume). Unusually, it’s known for its engravings, which are in fact not carved into the rock itself but into the fine layer of silt covering it – but this does not prevent them from being just as artistically impressive. The tour covers about 400 metres over 45 minutes, with about 600 engravings created in two phases, perhaps 40,000 and 12,000 years ago; there are no mammoths here, and some are hybrids and some have human faces.
It’s just a couple of kilometres further to Bernifal, the first of the private caves, which is reached by a ten-minute walk through hornbeam woods; you need to phone (33 674 963043) to talk to the owner and book a visit – he only speaks French, and likewise the tour will be in French. There are over a hundred engravings and paintings here, including horses, bison, mammoths and ibex, created about 12,000 years ago.
A little way east of Combarelles is the Cap Blanc rock shelter, where there’s a sculpted frieze of horses that uses the natural contours of the rock to stunning effect. There’s a lifesize horse in the centre with two others on either side in mirror image, then a pair of bison were probably added later (there’s a new theory that the bison were carved first, but this seems unlikely). The carvings were covered in sediment until they were discovered in 1909, when the lower part was unfortunately destroyed by pickaxe-wielding labourers. A young woman was buried in front of the frieze about 14,000 years ago, around the time the carvings were created – some people imagine she was one of the artists, but that’s probably romantic wishful thinking (she’s now in the Field Museum in Chicago). It’s also run by the state and with tickets sold at the Font de Gaume – but 210 visitors are allowed per day and it can actually be booked in advance.
Just across the valley, there’s also the Grotte de Commarque, under the château of the same name, which has carvings possibly by the same artist; it’s not open, but there’s a 3D film at the château, which is worth visiting in its own right.
The Grotte de Rouffignac, about 10km north of Les Eyzies as the crow flies (further by road), is privately owned, and and has a high wide entrance, so that its existence has always been known; the first 700 metres of the top level (of three) were not suitable for cave art, but electric trains now clank along to take visitors to the paintings, from the Magdalenian period (12,000 to 14,000 years ago) when mammoths and woolly rhinos grazed the freezing steppes outside. After another 300 metres you’ll reach the Great Ceiling, with images of 66 animals above a sinkhole which seems to have been some kind of sanctum or holy of holies, with one of the very few images of a human profile hidden in it. The animals here are perfectly proportioned (well, the ibex less than the horses and other animals), unlike the stylised images of the Lascaux style; it’s thought that two or three artists worked at the same time, having crept a kilometre deep into the cave, let’s not forget. The mammoths are outlined in black, using manganese oxide powder, while the mammoths are engraved by the artists’ fingers in the thin later of clay covering the rock. You also see hollows dug out by cave bears to hibernate in, and scratches made by their claws, though it’s not sure whether they were wielded by the bears themselves or by humans.
On our way east from the Dordogne, we stopped at Cougnac, where there are two adjacent privately-run caves – first you’ll visit one to see a fine display of stalactites and stalagmites (you’re actually allowed to take photos here, unlike all the painted caves), and then you’ll be taken to the second, 300 metres away, via a wine cellar under a farmhouse. Like so many of these caves, it was blocked by a mud-slide and preserved in suspended animation for thousands of years. It’s just a hundred metres to the paintings of mammoths, ibex and three giant elk (25,000 to 30,000 years old), many making use of the natural shapes of the cave wall to bulk out the animals’ contours. My colleague Annie says this is her favourite of the caves, and it’s easy to see why – far from the tourist hordes, it’s full of interest and variety, with for instance one realistic mammoth and some abstract ones; two men, or perhaps wolves, being speared, multiple colours (charcoal, manganese oxide and ochre), including ochre colouring on columns that frame the image of an ibex, and the possibility that stalactites were played like a xylophone.
On previous trips, about twenty years ago, I vaguely remember taking clients to La Roque Saint Christophe, a rock shelter in a cliff across the Vézère river from Le Moustier. This sheltered both Neanderthals (c50,000 years ago) and Cro-Magnon people (c25,000 years ago), and was then a medieval troglodyte settlement until it was destroyed in 1588, in the Wars of Religion.
I’ve also visited the cave of Pech Merle, to the south at Cabrerets in the Lot département, half an hour east of Cahors, which is another of the rare painted caves that are still open to the public in limited numbers. Stretching up to one and half kilometres from the entrance are paintings from the Gravettian period (about 25,000 years ago), and other paintings and engravings that may have been created in the Magdalenian (about 16,000 years ago). In addition to mammoth, reindeer and bovids, it’s known for its striking spotted horses, for handprints, and for the footprints of a teenage boy, almost a kilometre from the entrance.
To the east of the Massif Central, arriving in the Rhône valley, the Grotte Chauvet (more correctly but rarely known as the Grotte du Vallon Pont d’Arc, because Jean-Marie Chauvet was just one of the group of discoverers) holds some of the finest and most important examples of cave art – it was discovered fairly recently, in 1994, and was never opened to the general public. Instead, there’s a new tourist site two kilometres away (known as Grotte Chauvet 2), opened in 2015, with an excellent replica and other interactive displays, café and shop. The replica is ten times the size of Lascaux-4 and is highly accurate except that the floor is smooth and level, unpainted sections have been omitted and there’s a guard-rail as well as an audio system that allows several groups to follow each other through – some people can forget that they’re in a facsimile, but I certainly couldn’t.
The discoverers had to make their way through a virtual river of cave bear bones two metres deep (the remains of at least two hundred bears) to find first red marks on the walls and then animal paintings. The thin layer of clay on the walls was mostly removed to allow painting, but there are finger-etchings in clay in some places. The paintings are twice as old as those at Lascaux, mostly by Cro-Magnon people 36,000 years ago (in the Aurignacian period), with some more 28,000 years ago (in the Gravettian period), and perhaps earlier as well, and there’s a very different bestiary of at least thirteen animal types, as well as humans and a sort of half-human half-bull. Lions were important in cave art, but not for some reason the cave bears (we can probably assume that the painters did not enter in winter when the bears were here); the only prehistoric paintings of a cave panther and an owl are here, as well as positive and negative handprints in ochre, of men, women and children. About five hundred of the 940 images are abstract or unidentifiable.
All in all, the artistry in these caves is consistently amazing, but I got a bit tired of people saying ‘they were as good as Picasso!’ (In the caves the people come and go, talking of Picasso and Michelangelo). As it happens, I went to a Picasso exhibition in Avignon the day after visiting the Grotte Chauvet and – I’m sorry – there’s no comparison. Like the cave painters he was a great natural draughtsman, but he was also full of new ideas, constantly reinventing himself (while also paying homage to his artistic inheritance), and changed the course of modern art several times.
By the way, absolutely no photography is allowed in any of the caves (even the replicas), so here are a few copies from postcards of Lascaux. Not great, but that’s all you’re getting.
Food and drink
I also managed to eat some superb meals – it’s a very meaty culture (duck, foie gras…), but with a bit of warning they’ll produce great vegetarian meals. In Les Ezyies we had no less than six great meals at the Hôtel Les Glycines and a really good dinner at Le Centenaire, while the Hôtel Cro-Magnon serves good classic French food for a slightly lower cost. In Sarlat, L’Adresse was fantastic and I gather that Gueule et Gozier is at the same level (the owner is Filipino, so there’s creative use of Asian spices); L’Entrepôte was not bad.
This was classically-based cuisine, but in Avignon on-trend things such as poke bowls and ceviche were on offer, and crumble popped up regularly too – not what we’d call a crumble in Britain, but rather a patch of crumb topping on a dish.
As for wine… I think I said enough (for now) at the end of my Avignon post.