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Prehistoric Cave Paintings in France’s Dordogne

Dordogne, France

The Dordogne has prehistoric caves with paintings dating from 18,000 to 10,000 BC. The most famous is Lascaux — tour a replica cave to see sophisticated depictions of deer, horses, and oxen. The National Museum of Prehistory at Les Eyzies displays fascinating, well-crafted artifacts.

Complete Video Script

Long before the age of great castles, humbler groups in the Dordogne found refuge in caves. La Roque St-Christophe, a series of river-carved terraces, has provided shelter to people here for 50,000 years. While the terraces were inhabited in prehistoric times, the exhibit you’ll see today is medieval. The official recorded history goes back to AD 976, when people settled here to steer clear of Viking raiders who’d routinely sail up the river. Back then in this part of Europe, the standard closing of a prayer wasn’t "amen," but, "and deliver us from the Norseman, amen."

A clever relay of river watchtowers kept an eye out for raiders. When they came, residents gathered up their kids, hauled up their animals — as you can imagine with the help of this big recreated winch — and pulled up the ladders. While there’s absolutely nothing old here except for the carved-out rock, it’s easy to imagine the entire village — complete with butcher, baker, and even candlestick-maker — in this family-friendly exhibit.

From about 18,000 until 10,000 BC, long before Stonehenge and the pyramids, back when mammoths and saber-toothed cats still roamed the earth, prehistoric people painted deep inside caves in this part of Europe. These weren’t just crude doodles. They are huge and sophisticated projects executed by artists and supported by an impressive culture — the Magdalenians.

The region's limestone cliffs — honeycombed with painted caves — are unique on this planet. Tourists gather nearby at Lascaux, home of the region's — and the world’s — most famous cave paintings.

These caves were discovered accidentally in 1940 by four kids and their dog. Over the next couple decades, about a million visitors climbed through this prehistoric wonderland inadvertently tracking in fungus on their shoes and changing the humidity and the temperature with their breathing. In just 15 years, the precious art deteriorated more than in the 15,000 years before that. The caves were closed to the public. Visitors can now experience the wonder of Lascaux by touring an adjacent replica.

When their time comes, visitors are called to meet their guide for a look at the precisely copied cave called Lascaux II.

Guide: Then we are in the oxen room, the most spectacular room of Lascaux. It’s a sacred place. We don’t live in a church, they never lived in the caves. And it’s a huge composition, it’s a calculated composition because they have taken advantage of the slip of rock to relate in a circle two groups almost facing each other. And in the center of this composition they have united the three principal animals of Lascaux: horse, ox, and deer.
Rick: Is this a hunting scene?
Guide: No, it’s not a hunting scene because on the walls the hunter doesn’t exist. They never tell the everyday life. The meaning is more complex.
Rick: What is the biggest animal?
Guide: This bull is the largest painting in the cave. 16 feet from the top of the horn to the tip of the tail.

The guide explains that this 600 animal multi-cave composition was the work of a complex society, the Magdalenian's. Their culture allowed for skilled artists to work over an extended period of time in this sacred place.

Guide: They fix maybe on the walls a dream, image…and the image will be able to cross generations; the image becomes the memory of the society. The art of Lascaux is supposed to be around 17,000 years old. But compared to the beginning of the humanity which was born in Africa 3 million years ago, was yesterday. They were like us.

The region has many more examples of prehistoric cave painting. And the nearby National Museum of Prehistory provides an instructive background.

This modern museum houses over 18,000 bones, stones, and fascinating little doodads — all uncovered locally. Artifacts are originals and show that while the Magdalenian people lived 15,000 years ago, they were far more advanced than your text book cavemen. Skeletons were discovered draped in delicate jewelry. Stag teeth and tiny shells were, it seems, lovingly drilled to be strung into necklaces. These barbed spearheads and fish hooks would work well today. Finely carved spear throwers show impressive realism for something three times as old as the oldest pyramids. Imagine flickering flames from these oil lamps lighting those art-covered caverns.

Today, as we ponder the prehistoric caves and artifacts of the Magdalenian people here in the Dordogne we can marvel at how much we actually have in common with these people and how sophisticated their culture was so long ago.