Prehistoric Painted Caves of Vézère River Valley
UNESCO World Heritage
Vézère River valley prehistoric sites in the Dordogne department of the south west France are listed in the UNESCO's World Heritage List. Nowhere in the world does the quality and quantity of the prehistoric artifacts equal the ones found in Dordogne.
The history of the prehistory
We can argue that prehistory as a science was born in France in the middle of the 19th century when Jacques Boucher de Perthes - considered the "father of the Prehistory" - brings about the acceptance of the idea of mankind's history in a very distant passed time and the notion of the "antediluvian" human.
Many of the pioneers of the scientific discipline of prehistoric archaeology were indeed French. As yearly as 1734 Nicolas Mahudel a Jesuit monk and a physician presented to the French Academy, a work describing three ages in the human history: stone, bronze and iron - in this chronological order.
Between 1851 and 1860 Jean-Baptiste Noulet, a French scientist and naturalist , provides the first strong evidence of the co-existence of prehistoric fauna and humans and in 1865 John Lubbock, a British (this time!) historic and naturalist coins the names "Paleolithic" and "Neolithic" that replace the ante and post-diluvium eras' names.
Another (French) illustrious prehistorian was Henri Breuil (1877-1961) a Catholic priest and archeologist known also as "the Pope of the Prehistory" who became in the beginning of the 20th century a world renowned authority in prehistoric cave art.
Henri Breuil was instrumental in the worldwide recognition of the Dordogne prehistoric cave art patrimony and of its crown jewel the Lascaux cave.
Dordogne Pays de l'Homme
With 147 prehistoric sites dating from the Palaeolithic and 25 decorated caves, covering an area of 30km by 40km, Dordogne (or the ancient province of Perigord) proudly bears also the name of "le pays de l'Homme" (the country of the human).
The first human to settle in Dordogne was Homo Erectus who came here some 400,000 years ago - a period of time called Lower Paleolithic. He found here convenient conditions of dwelling: numerous caves and rock shelters naturally formed in the calcareous soil by water erosion as well as vital resourced of game, fish and flint for tools - Home Erectus being the first hominid to create tools and to use the fire.
Around 250,000 years ago Homo erectus disappears, to be followed in the Middle Paleolithic period (300,000 to 30,000 BP) by humans with bigger brains. These were Homo sapiens ('wise man'). By far the best known of them is the Neanderthal man -- named from the first fossil remains to be discovered, in 1856, in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf, in Germany. The Neanderthal were the first to bury their dead and the graves of Ferrassie and Moustier in Dordogne are Neanderthal burial sites.
Like Home Erectus before them the Neanderthals dissapper form the fossil record some 30,000 BP - during the upper Paleolithic. By then they have already co-existed with the modern humans, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, for probably 60,000 years. In Europe, where they first appear about 35,000 years ago, our forebears are known as Cro-Magnon from the place in the Dordogne where remains of them are first discovered in a cave in 1868. It is they who created the extraordinary art that can be still admired in the rock galleries of caves such as Lascaux, Combarelles, Font-de-Gaume, Rouffignac etc.
Why and Who
It is a good time now to answer the questions of why did our ancestor paint and engrave their dwellings and who exactly were the artists.
Henri Breuil thought that, despite being accomplished artists knowledgeable of techniques of mixing the paint and of applying it, of how to represent the volume through shading and of how to represent the movement, the cave painters work origin lies not in their need to express their talent, but in the magic practices of people that depended for their survival on hunting big game: the artists were drawing the animals they were eager to hunt and by drawing the same animal multiple times they were hoping to increase the fertility of the migratory herds.(Henri Breuil's opinion is still debated). As to who exactly were the artists, recent studies indicate that the majority of the painters were women - contrary to the previous assumption that the male hunters were also decorating the caves. The studies - that took place in France as well as Spain - were based on the measurement of the handprints found near the cave art and the relative lengths of the fingers. Out of 32 handprints 24 were probably the ones of women.