I’m bent over to half my height, but it’s not enough to protect my head from a hard thump from a stone hanging in the dark reaches of the cave at the Font de Gaume. The light flickering on the wall is from the guide’s flashlight; we try to imagine how much darker it would have been 15,000 years ago, when one of our ancestors crawled deep into this hillside with nothing more than a smoldering torch to cut through the perfect blackness. As the smoke collected in the narrow spaces around him, he somehow must have wormed his way onto this shelf and, lying on his back, started to daub pigments in the image of a bison on the wall.
A rare and restricted experience for tourists
We’re lucky to be here at all. Most of the famous “cave art” sites in France are closed to the public because of the fragility of the limestone formations and the threat of damage to the art on the walls coming from the CO2 we exhale. The Font de Gaume is now the only place anywhere in France where you can see original color paintings from this period of human history. (You can, of course, see extraordinary replicas if you battle the crowds to see the complex just up the road at Lascaux.) At Les Combarelles , a short drive from here, the images are scratched (“engraved”) in the soft limestone of the cave walls rather than painted on.
Here at Font de Gaume, only 72 tickets are sold each day (and that’s a maximum, depending on the level of CO2 measured inside the cave); at Les Combarelles the number is only 42 tickets per day. Since the beginning of 2018, you can’t buy tickets in advance, so you must plan on being in line at least a couple of hours before the caves open. (Please keep this in mind – there are still many sites on the internet that talk about earlier times when advance tickets were available, but that’s not true anymore!) Karen and I did it for both the Font de Gaume and Les Combarelles, and found our efforts rewarded by one of the most fascinating and moving experiences we’ve had anywhere in the world.
Images flickering in the torchlight
At first the art in both cave sites is hard to see, and we really have to use our imagination to see what the guide told us to see – dozens of images of bison, horses, mammoths, reindeer, even what appears to be a rhinoceros and some early relatives of wolves and mountain lions. As our eyes became accustomed to the dark, we begin to discern more as the guide traces the figures with his flashlight.
As the minutes pass, we have a better and better sense of how claustrophobic, how perfectly dark this place would have been for the prehistoric artist. The caverns have been enlarged some over time to accommodate explorers and visitors; our artist would have had to exert great effort to wedge his body through the narrow passages, some only a few inches wide. And he couldn’t have stayed inside for long, as the smoke from his torch accumulated and fire consumed the oxygen around him.
But I can understand how this might have been a genuinely spiritual experience for the prehistoric painter as he translated the realities he saw in the natural world outside into images drawn by his own hand on the limestone walls and brought to life, dancing in the flickering flame he carried into the cave.
“The World Capital of Prehistory”
We started this day in Les Eyzies, “the world capital of prehistory” by some estimations. This little village, along the D48 road in the Périgord Noir region of the Dordogne in the deep heart of France, is at the center of one of the most remarkable clusters of prehistoric sites anywhere in the world. It’s surrounded by limestone hills laced with the caverns and open-faced recesses that gave shelter to our Cro-Magnon ancestors. (You can still visit many of these sheltering places (arbris in French, including a couple that are within the city limits of Les Eyzies.)
This is, in fact, the place that gave us the very name “Cro-Magnon”, taken from a rock formation near Les Eyzies, where the first skeletons of these early humans were discovered by archeologists in 1868. There’s been a village here for a long time – at least 600 years – and although it never figured in any of the great battles or migrations that mark the history of this corner of France, it’s easy to imagine that it would have been visited frequently by passing armies and bands of raiders through the centuries.
(And by the way, it’s not just our prehistoric ancestors who profited from the network of caves and shelters that cover this part of the Dordogne in the deep heart of France. People retreated to some of these sites in the Middle Ages to escape the ravages of the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of Religion; they came again during the Revolution to live their lives away from the violence of that turbulent period. A whole religious community developed a working church in the complex of caverns at Brantome. And in several places around France, there are still “troglodytes” who’ve fashioned homes out of the natural caves and continue the lifestyle that made this region so attractive to our ancient ancestors.)
A village like no other in France
The town’s full name is a mouthful reflecting how the place evolved: Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil. Tayac was the original village along the Vézère river, growing organically for who knows how long, since this part of France has been occupied by humans for around 400,000 years. But the big archeological discoveries of the 19th century insured that “Les Eyzies” would become the more familiar and more widely-used part of the name; “Sirueil” was added in 1973 when that little commune was annexed to the town.
With a population today of around 800 people, at ground level the town looks like any other French village laid out in a straight line along the highway. Raise your eyes, though, and you’ll see something remarkable: the Chateau de Tayac, itself a kind of “cave dwelling” since it was built directly into the shelf of limestone sheltering the town from above. Begun in the 11th century and enlarged during the Renaissance, the Chateau de Tayac was sold to the French government in 1913 to become the first home of what has become a great museum.
The French National Museum of Prehistory
With all the riches of the whole history of human habitation in Europe and troops of archeologists coming to the Dordogne to dig them out, it’s not surprising to find that the collection of prehistoric artifacts quickly swelled to an unmanageable size, even after accounting for the thousands of objects given over to other museums around the world. Two buildings were added on to the Chateau de Tayac in the 1960s to warehouse the collection, then a new extension was built in 2004 and opened as the French National Museum of Prehistory.
The exhibits here cover the whole 400,000 years of human presence visible in this part of France. We spent hours here, and could likely spend hours more – the museum has almost 15,000 square meters (160,000 square feet) of exhibits, ranging from tools, artifacts of daily life, and funeral practices to whole skeletons of the early humans who lived here. It’s an enormously interesting and thought-provoking presentation, and Karen and I took our time examining the objects on display and trying to imagine them in use in one of the hundreds of caves and arbris that surround this village.
Les Eyzies : Definitely ON the beaten path – but worth the trip!
All the sites in and around Les Eyzies are popular with tourists, so be sure to plan if you’re coming to this part of France on holiday (and particularly if you want to try to see the original cave art at Font de Gaume or Les Combarelles). We made our base in the great medieval market town at Sarlat-le-Caneda, mostly because of the variety of places for food and lodging to be found there. (It’s also a great place to start many other great day trips – to the Gardens at Marqueyssac, for example, or the “most beautiful villages” at Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, Beynac-et-Cazenac, La Roque Gageac and others.) No matter how you come, though, be sure to allow a day or two to explore how people came to inhabit the original “deep heart of France” with a side trip to Les Eyzies and the prehistoric sites that make it a UNESCO World Heritage center.
Have you been to the Museum of Prehistory? Or have you visited other sites in France with links to our most ancient human ancestors? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and while you’re here, please share this post with someone else who loves traveling in France by clicking on the button for your preferred social-media platform.