The cliffs at Les Eyzies
(photo by Greg Larson)
Preface: Gretta and I have been pleasantly surprised with the extracurricular activities included in our European bike tours. In 2007, we toured the Dordogne River valley in southern France, taking in side trips to caves, castles, and other points of interest. Our tours of the caves with prehistoric paintings caused me to pause and absorb their historical significance.
The Age of Man
by Greg Larson
One of the most interesting features of the Dordogne Valley and the Périgord region of France is the historical evidence of ancient tribes and their habit of dwelling along the rivers at the edge of the limestone cliffs. One of the tell-tale signs of their existence is the collection of holes chopped into the limestone by the ancient people to allow their leaning tent poles to be set along the cliffs. As we wound along the river on our bikes we could see the cut rectangular depressions in the stone at various nomadic camping spots.
We learned much more about these aboriginal people from a professor who was knowledgeable in the anthropological history of the area. He was a short Frenchman with long wavy hair. His passion on the subject of the cave dwellers was evident, and he spoke very good English. Before we toured the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume (one of the few sites that allow viewing of authentic cave paintings), he shared a wealth of information, of which I was able to retain some bits and pieces. We listened intently to his lecture in a beautiful setting by the riverside in Les Eyzies, at a meeting spot with a semicircular stone bench….a perfect place to relax and learn more about the region.
According to what he shared with us, the tribes of the area were nomadic. They roamed the area around 27,000 B.C. to 15,000 B.C., during the Ice Age in northern Europe. They followed the reindeer herds as the animals roamed a circular route of approximately 100 kilometers in diameter. Sometimes the circles of reindeer and nomads overlapped, and the herds and tribes intermixed. The nomads were dependent on the reindeer, using every bit of the animal for their subsistence: hides for clothing and tents, sinew for string, meat and fat for cooking and eating, and bones for tools.
The professor commented that several hundred caves with paintings have been discovered in the Périgord region of France. Historians have long wondered why the symbols and animals were painted on the cave walls. According to our lecturer, no one has a definitive answer. Many believe the cave paintings were the beginning of recorded pictures and symbols that acted somewhat like an alphabet. He shared with us that our symbol of the “alpha” letter “A” is really an upside-down picture of a deer with horns. The nomads did not live in the caves because these large fissures were too damp and cold, and there was no ventilation for the smoke created by their fires. But the painters found a spot on the cave walls to record their various pictures and symbols; some as obvious as a European bison herd, and some that looked like graffiti gang symbols. They used animal-fat candles for their light source, and applied the organic pigments with sticks and crude brushes made from animal hair. Some of the paintings required the artists to use some type of scaffolding, due to the location on the upper walls of the caves.
The larger caves that have the most worthy collection of paintings are mostly off-limits to the public. Upon their discovery, the paintings began to deteriorate and decay, due to the carbon dioxide emitted from the crowds and from the introduction of mold and microbes brought in on the feet of the visitors. The Grotte de Font-de-Gaume is one of the few large caves allowing viewers. Each group of fifteen is granted a few minutes in the cave, and only twelve groups are allowed in each day. The most prominent paintings in the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume are the European bison (now extinct in the wild), the horses, and a small number of reindeer. Our guide noted that although the nomads lived among the reindeer, there are very few cave paintings of this specific animal.
These ancient artists began to experiment with three dimensional pictures through the positioning of the artwork. The bison shoulders and humps were located on the rock to appear to bulge from the surface. Some of the artists attempted to show the running animals in perspective, with the front appearing larger than the rear of the animal. A rare image shows a male reindeer “kissing” the head of a female reindeer.
Painted reindeer in Grotte de Font-de-Gaume
(internet image)All of these nomads were of the Homo sapiens species…the same as you and me. A fact that I did not know…Homo sapiens has existed as a species for only 40,000 years. According to our guide, the Homo sapiens species is “but a babe” compared to Homo habilus and Homo erectus, each averaging a span of over 1.2 million years. At the high point of the lecture we were told that as Homo sapiens, we are like “children playing with matches.” The professor looked around at us with a very serious expression and slowly asked, “Will we learn to use the matches to our benefit…or will we burn the house down?”
A couple of days later, we toured a simulated cave of Lascaux, called Lascaux II. The original cave was discovered in 1940, by a boy and his dog. After returning to the cave with a friend and torches, they went to their schoolteacher, who in turn contacted Abbé Breuil, a pre-history authority. After viewing the discovery, Breuil was quoted as saying the Lascaux caves were the “Sistine Chapel of the Périgord.” Over 1,500 paintings and symbols fill the cave. Unfortunately, an early photo shows Brueil smoking a cigarette, standing with the boys at the entrance to the caves. Thus began the damage to the cave paintings. By 1963 the cave had seen one million visitors and the damage was so great that it was closed permanently. Only scholars with special permission are allowed into the original cave. Eventually, authorities decided to create a simulated cave near the original Lascaux, with the same three-dimensional shape and matching replicated paintings. Painstaking detail was given to make the simulated cave a true replica. It was opened in 1983 and has been admired by thousands each year since its opening.
Painted Horse in the Lascaux Cave
(public domain image)
The professor’s talk caused me to think about the relatively young age of man, and how we’ve quickly developed the use of our brain. The creative power of Homo sapiens is a double-edged sword, striking a swath from learning and entertainment to harming and destroying others. As I walked out of the Lascaux II cave, and began to adjust to the bright light of sunshine, I wondered what the remnants of our civilization will look like 15,000 years from now, and I thought of the professor’s comment…We are like children playing with matches…