A Reflection on The Caves of the Dordogne and Vezere Valleys
Dr Kim Murray - by email 24th June 2013
“You don’t subscribe to Intelligent Design theory do you?” The question, asked only partly in jest by our guide, archeologist Steve Burman, arises as we stand facing the “Wall of Evolution” display at the beginning of our visit to the Musée National de Préhistoire at Les Ezyies de Tayac. We assure him that we hold to no such pseudo-scientific nonsense, the latest in the series of anti-Darwinian filibusters arising from the malignant think-tank of neoconservative Christianity. Looking relieved, Steve guides us through the broad outlines of the display, which figuratively describes the known examples of proto-human and human life, over the broad expanse of the last 7 million years. Two things stand out in challenging clarity. First, that the examples seldom, if ever, connect. The examples arise, have their time, and then vanish - one cannot construct a “family tree” for humanity from the known data. Second, the period from the emergence of our nearest European relatives, the Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon cultures, to the present, occupies something less than 40,000 years, less than 5% of the period under consideration. Many examples of proto-human life had a much longer run than we, to this point, have enjoyed. Archbishops Usher and Wilberforce notwithstanding, the data presented in this fashion engenders a serious rethinking of what it means to be human. So begins our visit with the relatives in the Dordogne.
Steve takes us further into the museum, where we see, in succession, a replica of the skeleton of “Lucy” a 3.5 million year old relative from Africa, the Lateoli footprints (Janet steps into the prints in the replica and announces that they are “her size”) of relatives, again, African, some 2.5 million years old, and a vast succession of artifacts deposited by the people who lived in the Dordogne and Vezere valleys from about 40,000 years ago. Most striking among these are an exceptionally beautiful “Biface” hand-axe, a remarkable set of ivory carvings, one in particular of a bison licking itself, and the oldest known example of a needle, again, carved ivory, the carvings and the needle dated to around 14,000 years ago. These artifacts are anything but primitive. The hand axe demonstrates a sensitive confluence of utility and artistic symmetry. The bison, in its emotive detail, reminds one of the animals depicted in Picasso’s “Guernica”. The needle, like the hand axe, is both a work of art and a straightforward means of creating clothing. We spend an amazing 3 hours in the museum with Steve, three hours which significantly challenge popular preconceptions of our ancient relatives as primitive, brutish and uncultured. Whoever they were, the artifacts that they left behind bear witness to a love of fine design and practical utility which would not be out of place today.
The visit to the museum at Lez Ezyies is the opening event of two exceptional days with Steve, who in partnership with Judie, his wife, operates “Caves and Castles” offering guided archaeological and historical tours of the Dordogne. In addition to his obvious academic qualifications, Steve proves to be a treasure-trove of practical information on getting the best out of our visit to France in general and the Dordogne in particular. He’s also a good-natured and generous guide with an attractive, off-the-wall sense of humor.
We do not begin to visit the painted caves until the morning of our second day with Steve. Prior to doing this, while visiting the Bastide towns of Beaumont and Monpazier, and the renaissance fortress called Chateau Biron (of which more later, in a separate article), Steve sets the scene for our visit with the relatives who left us the painted caves. About 20 - 12,000 years ago the world was gripped by the last ice-age. Humanity, it is believed, existed on the knife-edge of extinction. Small communities dotted the landscape of south-central Europe, in places like the Ardeches, Altamira and, significantly, the Vezere and Dordogne river system. It is believed that in each of these localities the deep limestone valleys offered important micro-climates which fostered human existence in an otherwise severely hostile climate. The communities lived in dwellings literally fastened into the cliff face, the best surviving evidence of which is to be found just upriver from Les Ezyies, at Roc St. Christophe. These people did not live in caves, but they most certainly painted the caves at Lascaux, Rouffignac, Peche Merle and Font de Gaumes, and further afield at the Ardeches Gorge (Rhone Valley) and at Altamira in northern Spain. The paintings survive as the expression of the soul of a people in crisis, a people who probably knew themselves to be walking on the edge of extinction.
Our second day with Steve begins with a tour of Lascaux II, the replica of the cave system discovered at Lascaux in 1940. The original was closed to the public in 1963 because the carbon-dioxide in visitors’ breath was damaging the images, and an exact (to the millimetre) replica was created in the early 1970's. After visiting Lascaux II Steve takes us to Le Thot (which he describes as Lascaux III) where, in a better illuminated setting, key tableaux from the Lascaux paintings may be viewed in a more relaxed, self-guided tour. There are depictions of Aurochs, Horses, Reindeer and Bison. There are cryptic symbols, and a mysterious depiction of a man wearing a bird-like headdress. Again, we are struck by the modernity, the sense of freshness and presence that emerges from the art. There is a sense of motion and perspective, something that would not emerge again until the renaissance of the late 15th century CE. Steve takes time to point out how much of the painting is actually defined by the physical use of the human hand as a template. The dewlap of a Bison is the angle of an artist’s thumb and forefinger, the curve of a Reindeer’s antler is the outside curve, attenuated in several iterations, of the outer edge of the artist’s hand and little finger. The animal depictions make use of the contours of the cave-wall itself: the shoulder of a bison is a round outcrop, its legs follow erosion lines in the living stone. We leave Le Thot bemused and deeply moved. But to this point, all we have seen are replicas.
It is said that Lascaux is the Sistene Chapel of paleolithic art. If that is true, then Font de Gaumes must be the equivalent of the Saint-Chappelle. It is the final event in our two days with Steve, and it is the best, saved for last. There is a four hundred meter scramble up a path to the cave’s entrance, and I know that this is a one-off. Even with Steve and Janet helping, it is right at the edge of my physical limits. We enter the cave as part of a tour group, and thread our way through the narrow passage about 300 meters into the galleries. There are depictions of Bison, Aurochs, Horses, and Reindeer. At one point the guide shuts off the lights and flickers his electric torch over a frieze of horses.... and there is for a moment the illusion of movement, the horses are running across the wall of the cave, just as they would have done when lit by a fat-lamp with a juniper wick. And then I see it, just for a moment, the negative imprint of a hand, thumb and four fingers outlined on the underside of an outcrop, where some artist held a hand while another blew the pigment over and around it to leave a signature. It moves me to tears, and I am reminded of a passage from Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words, where one of his characters sees a similar handprint in the caves at Altamira:
God only knew how long it had been put there. Maybe ten - maybe twenty thousand years before. “This is my mark” it said, “My mark that I was here. All I can tell you of myself and of my time and of the world in which I lived is in this signature: this hand print: mine. ...I saw these animals. I saw this grass. I saw these stars...I leave you this: my hand as signature beside these images of what I knew. Look at how my fingers spread to tell my name.” Some there are who never disappear. And I knew I was sitting at the heart of the human race - which is its will to say I am.
We emerge from Font de Gaumes into a world which somehow will never seem quite the same. We leave with a sense of deep connection, deep rootedness in a history greater than racial, political or even biblical. I know that I will never again see the inside of Font de Gaumes, some things just do not bear repetition. But the image of that hand is seared in my soul, as is my sense of having visited these relatives in this very special place.
With awesome thanksgiving,