The 18km trip from our base in Limeuil to Les Eyzies was travelling along the Valley of the Vezere from a lovely place to a gorgeous place. The map to the right gives some idea of the topography of the valley. It was basically a channel for funnelling animals down along the water course. The Museum of Prehistory makes this clear on its website…
“This region has many major points of interest, amongst them the permanent occupation throughout Prehistory as an ideal refuge zone for human and animals during glacial periods of the Quaternary period…a vast hunting territory and an inevitable thoroughfare for hordes of reindeer was without a doubt one of the main reasons explaining the Magdalenians’ choice 12,000 years ago.”
After stopping and parking in the centre of town, we were not far from the banks of the river and while there, we encountered no reindeer passing but it was a beautiful landscape to relax and read up on the day ahead.
With the beautiful river on one side, by turning around and facing the cliffs of Les Eyzies, we could look up at the main street of the town and by lifting our eyes further, we could take in the remnants of the Chateau de Tayac built into the cliff face. In the centre of the image below can be seen a statue on the rock shelf that has the official title of ‘L’Homme primitif’. It was completed by Paul Darde in 1931. It was originally meant to be a statue of Neanderthal Man but the final result received a lot of criticism for its portrayal of this early human species. It stands next to what is left of the 13th century castle which is now part of the National Museum of Prehistory; the statue can be examined more closely during a visit to this section of the museum.
Built into a cliff, the Chateau de Tayac has had a long and chequered history. It was continuously fought over during the ‘Hundred Years War (1337-1453) when the English Plantagent King, Edward III, fought for his ancestral possessions in Normandy with the French Kings of the House of Valois. It had to be rebuilt in the 16th century but was again involved in destructive local wars. It was ordered to be demolished in the early 17th century so what remains for us to see today is lucky to have survived.
Walking up from the river brings you to the street that runs along and underneath the overhang of the cliff. I don’t think anybody would suggest that the houses built under the cliffs are Troglodyte houses, they are far too attractive for socially isolating cavemen. Not far along is the National Museum of Prehistory which is a must see to prepare you for the other sites scattered along the Vezere river near Les Eyzies. The rock shelters along this section of the town where the Museum and the Chateau were built were also used by the prehistoric hunters to watch for the passing reindeer from their platforms with great views up and down the valley. These Magdelanian hunters left their spear blades and other artifacts behind to mark the spot of one of their bases.
Given the significant number of prehistory sites in the valley around Les Eyzies, it is no surprise that the Museum here is of world significance. It has all the usual facilities of a modern museum but its focus is on the prehistory of the Dordogne so the exhibitions cover the range of issues that archaeologists have studied in the valley since the 19th century. There are exhibitions on…
- MovableArt…engravings on bone, ivory, antler and stone.
- The environment…this exhibition examines more the fauna (animals) rather than the flora of Europe that is the background to the appearance and disappearance of so many species, particularly the effects of the Ice Age.
- The people and cultures that settled here over the millennia.
- The tools left behind by stone age humans
- Items used for adornment of the stone age residents of the Dordogne.
- Decorated blocks of stone, collapsed wall decorations speak of the art of humanity between 34-12k BCE.
- The burials, these displays illustrate the events that changed the world’s view of the nature of early humanity.
After finishing a visit to Les Eyzies with a stroll of the small town, it’s time to visit some of the smaller sites along the Verzere River that has brought the title of the ‘Valley of Mankind’ to the area. At the opening of the booklet, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac and the Vezere Valley (Blanchet and Cleyet-Merle) explain… “The Vezere Valley was never a frozen desert, even at the height of the ice age: a thin strip of vegetation provided the inhabitants with a supply of game, fish, wood for heating, and, of course, flint, indispensable for making tools and arms.”
The mud map of the area below gives a good indication of where these sites are and their approximate distance from Les Eyzies.
The first rock shelter site that can be visited is Abri Pataud which is virtually in the middle of Les Eyzies and has been run by the Museum of Prehistory since 1957. You can visit this site an examine the large numbers of layers that have been excavated revealing evidence of Cro-Magnon humans from the Upper Paleolithic period (47-17k BCE). The most significant single article found here (apart from human bones, tools, and cave paintings!) is the Venus of L’Abri Pataud, a figure on a piece of stone dating from around 21000 years ago.
The other significant Cro-Magnon site in Les Eyzies is further along the side of the river Vezere, not far from the Cro-Magnon Hotel.
Abri du Poisson
Evidence of prehistory habitations have been found throughout the valley around Les Eyzies in the open air, in rock shelters (abri) and in caves. A little further out of Les Eyzies along the river is the Abri du Poisson which was discovered and examined in 1892. It is a small cave/rock shelter where evidence of habitation from about 25000 years ago was found (Gravettian period). It wasn’t until 1912 that the rock carving which gave its name to the shelter was discovered, covered in Lichens. The carving was of a large male salmon with the jaw turned up, apparently characteristic of an exhausted, spawning salmon. It is close to being the oldest known representation of a fish in the world. Rock carvings of fish in prehistory sites are rare. It was such a significant find that an attempt was made to steal it and the holes still frame the fish on its shelter wall today.
Grotte du Grand Roc
While we didn’t get to see inside the Abri du Poisson on our visit to the area, we were able to visit the site called Le Grand Roc a little further along the Vezere Valley. For those tourists wishing a break from the complex details of the prehistory of the area, this cave is a good alternative. It wasn’t a site of human habitation in the stone-age, being probably too high up the cliff as well as being a closed cave during those times. The cave reminded me of the Jenolan Caves of New South Wales, Australia with its beautiful stalagmites, stalactites and limestone columns. It was a very professional presentation of this beautiful cave and the bonus was the glorious views over the valley after we exited.
For information on the Cro-Magnon site and the Abri de la Madelaine, check out Prehistory…a background summary.