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Getting pre-historic at Font de Gaume

One of the many advantages of my small group tours is the fact that we fly under the radar when it comes to certain sites that prohibit tour groups. The Font de Gaume cave, home to some of the most stunning pre-historic paintings in the world, is one such place.

Deep in the southwestern part of France, about 75 miles east of the city of Bordeaux, lies the Vézères River Valley. This small river winds from the Massif Central in central France, eventually joining the Dordogne River near the village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. The region around Les Eyzies is riddled with natural limestone caverns that provided shelter to early humans about 35,000 years ago. The first Cro-Magnon skeletal remains (named after a cave in the area) were found here.

Lascaux cave, which has the most famous paintings in the region, is just a few miles away. Unfortunately tourist visits to Lascaux were causing irreparable damage to the paintings, so the site was closed to the public in 1963. Lascaux II, a perfect copy of the cave, was opened nearby. Visiting it is interesting, but you always know in the back of your mind that what you're looking at are modern copies, not the real thing.

Font de Gaume is the real thing. They manage to stay open because the cave has good natural ventilation to get rid of all the carbon dioxide and other pollutants visitors introduce into the cave, and because they limit the number of visitors to just 180 per day. Naturally with that kind of restriction, regular tour groups are not allowed. Four or five bus loads, and you'd be at the limit. Big tour groups visit Lascaux II. With less than eight tour members in tow, I visit Font de Gaume.

A guide leads us into the cavern to discover just a few of the more than 200 images that line the walls. Bison are the most common theme, though the most famous painting is a scene with two reindeer. Facing each other, the one standing is clearly licking the head of the kneeling reindeer (the image shown here is a stylized copy, that does not do justice to the real thing). Around 14,000 years old, it's the world's first story, a love story. Male and female? Mother and child? We can't say for sure.

What impresses me most about the paintings at Font de Gaume is the skill of the artists. The paintings are polychrome, made with a mixture of iron oxide (red) and manganese oxide (black), which were blended in various proportions depending on the effect the artist wanted to produce. The artists used the natural contours of the cave walls to achieve a three-dimensional effect and give volume to the bodies. We could not do better today.

These pre-historic artists did not just wander into a cave one day and decide to paint. This was a skill that had to be learned, and by necessity, taught. Painting deep in the cavern, using only fire light, they achieved incredible realism. It demonstrates a sophistication that belies the image of "cave men" as unintelligent, thick-browed apes dragging their women around by the hair.

If you're visiting the area, reservations for Font de Gaume are highly recommended, and should be made at least a month in advance. For more details about visiting Font de Gaume, or for help with planning a self-guided trip to France, please contact us.

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