The Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley

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Fish Engravings in the Abri du Poisson Cave,Vézère Valley. Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum), CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Since 1979 the area known as the “Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley” in southwest France has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It incorporates 15 prehistoric sites in the department of Dordogne, mostly in and around Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, which has been called the “Capital of Prehistory”. In total, the Vézère valley has more than 150 known sites and has played an essential role in the study of palaeolithic activity and art. The most famous of all individual sites in the valley is Lascaux with its exceptional rock art, which was discovered in 1940.

Archaeologists are unsure why certain valleys in south-west France were such important centres in the Palaeolithic period. The reason most probably relates to a unique abundance of game. Whatever the reason, the caves here reveal a series of superimposed culture strata, sometimes many feet thick, which have enabled archaeologists to establish a sequence of culture types over a long period. The importance of the region is underlined by the “Larousse Encyclopaedia of Prehistoric & Ancient Art” which lists seven masterpieces of prehistoric art, including those at Lascaux and Les Combarelles.

Three of the sites in the Vézère Valley have given their names to prehistoric periods: the Micoquien, Mousterian and Magdalenian. In addition, the generic name for early modern humans in Europe – Cro-Magnon – comes from the Cro-Magnon rock shelter in the area. Twelve of the 15 listed sites here are open to a limited number of visitors per day.

Main UNESCO caves

Lascaux was discovered in 1940. It contains around 600 polychrome paintings dating from about 17,000 years ago. It was opened to the public in 1948 but closed again in 1963 when it became clear that changes in the atmosphere, caused by the thousands of visitors, were causing damage to the paintings. A replica of the cave (Lascaux II), complete with paintings, was erected nearby and opened to the public in 1984. In 2016 a museum (Lascaux IV) showing almost all the paintings was also opened nearby.

Animals reproduced in Lascaux II Jack Versloot, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Reproduction of Aurochs and deer in the Lascaux IV museu. Photo © Traumrune / Wikimedia Commons

Rouffignac Cave forms part of the longest cave system in the region and has several hundred images, mainly of mammoths, believed to be about 13,000 years old. The art is situated about 2 km inside the cave entrance and to reach it visitors travel on an electrical train. Because of its easy accessibility, the cave has been known since the 16th century and was already a tourist attraction in the 19th century. However, because of the distance from the entrance, the art was only discovered in 1956.

Mammoth and ibex in Rouffignac Cave Photo Cave painter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Abri du Poisson is a small cave in the Gorge d’Enfer, a small side valley of the Vézère, which was discovered in 1892. But the engraving of a fish, more than 1 metre long, which gives the cave its name, was not found until 1912. Estimated to be about 25,000 years old, it is one of the oldest known depictions of a fish in the world.

Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum), CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Font-de-Gaume contains more than 200 paintings of animals (mainly bison and horses) which are about 17,000 years old.

La Mouthe, discovered in 1894, contains engravings and paintings. A human tooth and backbone and a decorated lamp were also found here.

The cave of Les Combarelles is 300 metres long but only 1 metre wide. It holds more than 600 known prehistoric engravings and monochrome paintings. The cave was inhabited between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago.

Cro-Magnon man

Remains discovered in 1868 at the Cro-Magnon rock shelter in Les Eyzie included five humans (4 adults and a child) which archaeologists dated to about 28,000 years ago. A few years earlier a fossil skull found in the German Neanderthal Valley (given the name of Homo neanderthalensis) had been described as a precursor of modern man. As the Neanderthals became extinct around 40,000 years ago, the later term “Cro-Magnon” was soon being used instead to refer to the ancestors of all prehistoric modern men in Europe.

Cro-Magnon 1 (Musée de l’Homme, Paris) Photo 120, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons

Compared to Neanderthals, the Cro-Magnon skeletons showed the same high forehead, upright posture and slender skeletal shape as modern humans. While Cro-Magnons were anatomically similar to present-day Europeans, West Asians and North Africans, they were more robust and had larger brains, broader faces, more prominent brows and bigger teeth compared to today’s average.

Source Wikipedia

Text Alun Harvey

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