The Caves and other Paleolithic sites of the Vezere Valley were pronounced as World Heritage Sites in 1979 as of “Outstanding Universal Valley’ by UNESCO. Here is how UNESCO describes the region.
Located in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region in the Department of the Dordogne, the Vézère Valley is a priviliged prehistoric territory that contains more than 150 deposits dating back to Paleolithic times and about thirty decorated caves. This vast territory of roughly 30km by 40km is of outstanding interest from the ethnological, anthropological and aesthetic point of view with its cave paintings, in particular those of the Lascaux Cave, discovered in 1940. It also enabled the establishment of a chronological cadre for the prehistoric civilizations of the European quaternary period.
This property comprises 15 prehistoric sites that bear witness to a strong Paleolithic occupation: decorated caves, funerary places, workshops, exploitation areas for raw materials, habitats, hunting scenes. Furthermore, its potential as an archaeological reserve is considerable, as demonstrated by the discoveries carried out as preventive excavations since inscription on the World Heritage List.
We were able to visit two other of the UNESCO World heritage sites during our time in the area, the first being Font de Gaume. This cave is in the valley of the Reune river which joins the Vezere river at Les Eyzies.
Font de Gaume
Font de Gaume is just up the road from Les Eyzies and takes the visitor from rock shelters to the real deal of Paleolithic artists who decided that deep in the caves of the area was just the spot for their ground-breaking artistry of polychromatic (multi-coloured) paintings of the amazing animals of their valley. The first humans who used the front of this cave for shelter did so around 25000 years ago, thousands of years before they gathered in the cave further up the Reune at Les Combarelles. The cave paintings here date from around 17000 years ago during the Magdalenian period. Who knows what process of cultural development occurred over the 8000 years from when the early settlers began living around the cave and their descendants started to paint the Bison (80 images), the horses (40 images) and the mammoths (20 images)! But like the Lascaux caves, we are not sure when and why the artistic period stopped but the cave and the paintings were forgotten and not rediscovered until the late 19th century. Nineteen thousand years is a long time for masterpieces to be hidden in the dark and so preserved for viewing in our second millennium.
The other important thing about Font de Gaume is that the tourist can visit this cave and see some of the original paintings…it is the only cave in France where this can still be done. The caves at Lascaux are a classic example of what happens to Paleolithic, polychromatic paintings in sealed darked caves when they were opened to the atmosphere of the 20th century…they deteriorate rapidly.
The information board outside Font de Gaume explains the basics about the cave.
While tickets to visit this cave were available from the box office when we visited some years ago, these days you have to be sure to get there early to line up for the small number of tickets available. The conservation needs of the cave are high so only limited numbers of tickets are available. The image on the left was taken at the entrance to Font de Gaume as we listened to our guides introductory talk.
The two entrances to the cave shown in the picture above is a little misleading. The one on the left is a short dead end tunnel. The cave where the wall paintings are is a long narrow tunnel which means cramped viewing and walking. The guide has a laser pointer to show the visitors the details of the engravings and paintings. You are not allowed to take your own photographs in the cave. The most famous paintings from Font de Gaume are the bison images below where the animals are indicated by colour and outline but the artist is also using the shape of the cave walls to assist his presentation.
The other famous drawing in the cave is that of two reindeers captured in a curious encounter. Originally people thought it was an image of stags fighting but as the drawing was more closely examined, it was realised that it was an intimate encounter between a buck and a doe. For me, an exploration of Font de Gaume is incomplete without an image of two out of 20 Mammoths that grace the walls of this fabulous cave.
Five minutes or 3.6 kms up the road from Font de Gaume is the long, twisting and turning cave called Les Combarelles, originally formed by an underground river. It was discovered in the late 19th century and excavations had already occurred here before it was officially announced in 1901 as a significant site. It had been used by Cro-Magnon people from the Madalenian period from around 13000 years ago; radio-carbon dating of a piece of charcoal in 1973 showed it was between 11380-13680 years before our present time. It was the discovery and publishing of the engravings of the animals of the Vezere Valley from this cave that finally convinced sceptics in the history and scientific world that pre-historic humans had drawn these image about 13000 years ago. Even the dating of the paintings in Altimira Caves in Spain had been rejected as of prehistoric origin up to this date. The other significant feature of Les Combarelles is that it had engravings of anthropomorphic figures (Humans!) that are not common in cave art of the Dordogne.
The information sign outside Les Combarelles gives an excellent summary of what the visitor will find inside. The cave section that can be visited is a low and narrow passage that guides will take you through and the site is restricted to 42 visitors a day, so groups are small for each tour.
As the information sign explains, there are over 600 images on the walls of the cave. They are not the gorgeously painted animals like the Lascaux Caves but there are many different engravings of the animals that moved through the Vezere Valley 13000 years ago.
The images from this cave that interest me the most are those of the Woolly Mammoth that wandered this valley at the time of our Magdalenian ancestors and became extinct sometime around 10000 years ago. Here are just two of the engravings of the Woolly Mammoths recorded in Les Combarelles.
Given that human hunters are deemed complicit in the demise of the Woolly Mammoths, it is interesting to note that Cro-Magnons didn’t just consume them for their meat. After dinner around some stone-age camp-fire, somebody was given the job of throwing out the left-overs of a big meal. Perhaps he or she was an early insightful member of the group who decided not to throw away the mammoth tusks; perhaps they could be put to use during the long leisure times between hunting events. Sometime around 25000 years ago down near the current Spanish border, maybe this was scenario for one individual to carve from a leftover Mammoth tusk the beautiful ‘Venus of Brassempouy’. It is one of the earliest known realistic representations of a human face. Speaking of human faces, there appears to be a cheeky image of a smiling face behind the Mammoth in the image above right. There are similar images on other sections of the walls in this curious cave
Despite not being a technicolour presentation, a visit to Les Combarelles is like visiting an impossible animal park, time-travelling back to the Mesolithic period in Europe to gaze on the animals that roamed freely down the Vezere Valley of the time.
As usual, many thanks to Don at https://www.donsmaps.com/ for the use of his wonderful resources.