Valley of prehistoric cave art
Beneath the Dordogne in France lies the ‘Louvre of pre-history’ – thousands of cave paintings made 11,000 to 37,000 years ago, writes ELGY GILLESPIE
THE TRUFFLE-SCENTED valleys of France’s Dordogne are studded with golden stone castles. It’s as though Richard the Lionheart was just killing time around the next corner with his troubadour, and the Hundred Years’ War was only yesterday. But that’s just the latest layer of activity.
Beneath this green quilt run caverns of what art historian Judith Thurman calls the “Louvre of pre-history” – numberless thousands of paintings by the Upper Paleoliths, who lived here 11,000 to 37,000 years ago.
Vézère’s caves are where our ancestors gave birth to art, as related in Werner Herzog’s just-released 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreamsabout the finding of Chauvet Pont d’Arc, inspired by Thurman’s writings in the New Yorker. “What you are witnessing is the origin of the human soul and the beginning of figurative representation,” says Herzog.
Its forerunner was Lascaux, stumbled upon in 1940 by three boys and their dog, Robot, who disappeared down a hole. The boys followed him, to find a prehistoric zoo of fleeing horses and bison charging across curved walls.
Soon after, Lascaux was dubbed “the Sistine Chapel of the Périgord”, and in 1948 Pablo Picasso said: “They’ve invented everything.” Breath and humidity, however, rapidly gave it a scum-like “white sickness”, that systematically destroyed it, so a new Lascaux II was created in 1963 – a perfect replica.
Dordogne’s thunderstorms raged during our family reunion last June. But that wasn’t the only reason my siblings, nephew, cousins, and mates went cave-crazy, driving miles to linger in underground caves, viewing some twice (you can also go castles-crazy, markets-crazy, and food-crazy here).
First stop was Montignac’s tourism office for tickets (€8.80), then a brief drive south to the turn-off (book for July-August; off-season, just arrive). Ambling down a well-wooded walkway, we joined school kids and visitors from all over Europe to peer at antler and bone figurines of ample women.
Discreetly, our bilingual guide Brigitte – an archaeology student from Toulouse – ushered us into the Chamber of Bulls. With a laser she traced the iconic Great Bull to “oohs” and “ahs”, explaining how Upper Paleolithic painters flowered into expression. Nameless artists at the mercy of an uncertain world, they painted by flickering grease lamps.
Nomadic hunters, they crushed red and black clay, invented scaffolding and pointillism (sorry, Seurat) and perspective (sorry, Giotto). They imbued bison, horses and mammoths with motion, so they gallop and spring across undulating rock faces.
They rarely painted humans (one homo erectus is a mocking exception) and admired animals, rousing speculation about ritual and shamanism, coded messages and religion, or maybe just “I was here”. As Thurman writes: “Whatever the art means . . . its vessel is both a womb and a sepulchre.”
Lascaux II is a fake – but a convincing fake – since Lascaux I is now doomed by the maladie blanche. As a kid, in museums I waited for guards to look away so I could apply a germy fingertip to the Rosetta Stone or a crusader’s finger, I confess.
But just over 1km east of Les Eyzies on the D47, Font-de-Gaume is original. Ironically it looks fake, with its seductively, voluptuously Disney entrance walls, superb bison, mammoths, horses, and reindeer. (Numbers are limited; book online.)
Within hailing distance are the troglodytic cave dwellings of St Eyzies de Tayzac, where you can explore a medieval Protestant village clinging to vertical cliffs, and a nearby museum. Then visit medieval Sarlat, stroll the Carrefour, go antiquing ( la brocante), eat crêpes suzette near the cathedral, visit Irishman Neil Donnellys art and antiques shop – but don’t miss Sarlat!
Pêche Merle is the prize, with its spotted horses and poignant stencils of childish hands. About 45km southeast, just east of Cahors, it’s near another museum of prehistory.
Prompted by a Trinity homey, John Mules, we found Grotte de Rouffignac beyond Le Moustier, where a Jules Verne-style train helmed by a student “antlerologist” (a first) clatters miles into the earth, passing bear scratches, huge-tusked mammoths, goats, horses, woolly rhinos, doodlings made by 17th-century candle-toting spelunkers.
Beyond Brantôme and north of Perigueux, touristy Gouffre-de-Vallors has cathedral-esque stalagtites, but minimal painting. It’s redeemed by its nearness to Brantôme, with its canals and delicious surprises: impromptu chorales in its medieval chapels, divine tinned cassoulet.
But the most stunning discovery is also the newest cave find: Chauvet Pont d’Arc in the Ardèche, fully explored by Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Ideally suited to Herzog’s high romantic idiom, it tells how Jean-Marie Chauvet and partners lucked into finding our oldest art. Unlike Judith Thurman, Herzog got inside to see it; his will be the last filmed account. Why 3D? “It’d look flat in 2D,” Herzog says unnecessarily. It’s absolutely made for 3D. Amid bisons and mammoths crouch a pride of stalking lions, snarling and darting. “So now art bursts forth, and appears very accomplished.”
Over 32,000 years ago that art was created, and now it’s created again.
* To read First Impressionsby Judith Thurman see newyorker.com