Guessing at prehistoric art

Bison cave painting.

In some ways you need to see some of the oldest human works to understand the impact of the last few hundred years on the world.

This area around the Dordogne is riddled with caves where our ancestors have lived for millennia. They lived, they died and they left evidence of their passing – bones, rock-tools and paintings. There was much more to their lives than the original finds might have suggested; you can infer only so much from chipped rocks and a few bones. Nothing of wood or skin or flesh survived the passing time. But there’s the possibility of a real, deep – albeit tantalising – view of early humans in the paintings preserved deep in the caves above the local rivers.

Hunting mammoths.

Unfortunately after surviving fifteen, or twenty or, in some cases, thirty thousand years it has only taken a few years of modern life to damage these fragile relics. The first round of damage was due to the casual nature of the early visitors. They scraped, they scratched and they deliberately gaffiitied. The second round of damage was simply caused by thousands of visitors breathing; each breath adding to the humidity in the caves. The end result is that most of the caves are closed to visitors or available only as reproductions. The famous Lascaux paintings, for example, can no longer be directly visited. Visitors are taken to a meticulous reproduction made of concrete and modern paints. It’s, apparently, visually identical to the original – but it’s not the original.


Font de Gaume is the last cave system where you can see actual polychrome paintings. Unfortunately they get booked out months in advance. So at 9am this morning we joined fifty or so other hopefuls in a queue outside the hut that houses their ticket office. By 9:30 we were thrilled to have tickets for the 1pm tour in our hands.

That left us with a few hours to kill. We decided to visit Préhisto-Parc in Tursac in spite of it being the sort of place that TripAdvisor doesn’t even get around to rating. The park is a lovely, tree-filled valley in which you follow a path past outdoor dioramas which illustrate the lives of Neanderthals and Cro Magnon man. In themselves the dioramas were a bit sad; but they came with a wealth of information and being in such an atmospheric spot made them seem much more real than would have otherwise been the case. We came away with a far better understanding of pre-historic life and times. As well as having had a pleasant walk through the trees.

Font de Gaume entrance – no photos allowed inside.

Finally, though, we got to our Font de Gaume tour with an enthusiastic Frenchwoman as our guide. The Font de Gaume cave system runs for about 150m and would be fascinating even without the cave paintings. It’s a small, winding cave with pale walls. Really it looks more like something out of an Indiana Jones movie than a natural cave – it looks like a cave should look. As you wind through the first 50m or so the walls are blank. There are faint traces that show there were once paintings on these walls; but they were too close to the elements to survive. After about 50m in you come to a natural choke point which protected the rest of the cave; and once you are past that point the walls suddenly come alive with ancient animals.

The paintings seem to generally follow natural features of the walls, cleverly designed to take advantage of the walls’ natural three-dimensions. The guide showed us how much more vivid the paintings would have been by flickering torchlight and how the painters had used natural features to add to the experience. The first paintings are of bison, their heavy, shaggy heads and tapering bodies instantly recognisable. Some of the paintings were harder to interpret, but most were immediately obvious and still in colour.

The paintings in Font de Gaume are about 15,000 years old. They are of bison, ancient cows and deer. There are also a range of abstract geometric shapes. We found out some interesting things about the paintings – both at Font de Gaume and elsewhere. The paintings are all side-on,  presumably to make them clearly recognisable in a rock-painting. Outlines were generally scratched onto the rock wall and then coloured. Paintings were made all over the place from a couple of centimetres off the floor to five metres up. Mostly the paintings are of a small range of animals; there are hardly any human figures; and no trees, rivers, stars, clouds, suns – nothing else that the painters might have seen. Why the paintings were made, what they mean, what drove the painters – all these things remain mysteries.

It’s this last that makes the whole experience so tantalising. Seeing three-thousand year-old paintings in Egypt was awe-inspiring. But even at three-thousand years it was possible to grasp the ancient Egyptian’s motivations and get some idea of what they were trying to achieve. Imperfect, I’m sure, but within reach nonetheless. But when you look at the remnants of a 15,000 year-old culture you can only begin to guess at their motivations. Teaching kids to hunt? Religious ceremonies? Love of art? Whiling away long winter evenings? Impressing a girl-friend?  There’s not only no answer, there’s no hint that an answer will ever be forthcoming.

But what a wonderful thing it is to be able to see the paintings and guess.

For those who might come after: Font de Gaume holds back some tickets from the Internet (email) and telephone booking systems. If you turn up at the ticket office before opening you can buy some of the limited slots available. We turned up just before 9am and there were about 20 people already queued up, by opening time at 9:30 here were more like 50 people in the queue. As far as we could see everyone got tickets, but I’d aim to be there before 9am for some certainty. Strangely, there were only 7 people doing the 1pm tour in English – clearly not booked out.

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