Friday, November 14, 2014

Human Prehistory in France (Part 1)

We arrived in Perigueux on a Saturday afternoon. By the time we’d found our rented apartment and settled in, gone to the grocery and purchased enough food for three or four days, it was getting dark.

Sunday was dead, like being in a Zombie movie. Nobody was out and about. Then about dusk a few restaurants opened, and suddenly there was traffic and people walking the streets.

Monday is the day of rest for most attractions and museums, so there wasn’t much to do, and Tuesday was Armistice Day, a national holiday. It was as dead as Sunday plus it rained.

So, we had a vacation from our vacation. It was well deserved and appreciated. Especially since our rented apartment was elegant, a step-back into the 1850s with its marble fireplaces, chandeliers, wood floors and rich dark antiques. We were extremely comfortable and well fed.

When it wasn’t raining, we did walk about, hiking all over the city, photographing the river, the cathedral, the Roman ruins, and, luckily for me, memorizing the layout of the city. This knowledge came in handy days later when we drove back into town from Les Eyzies, in the dark without a map.

Modern Human
The area, known as both the Perigord and the Dordogne, has a history longer than any other in France. Human beings, assuming Neanderthals were human beings, have occupied this region for over 400,000 years. No that’s not a typo. Four hundred thousand years.

To give us Americans a bit of perspective, the earliest finds of prehistoric man in the US date back 15,000 years, tops.  

Two thousand years before that, Paleolithic people painted the Lascaux cave.

On Monday we hiked over to the train station to talk to the car rental places, settled on a Citroen from EuropeCar, and made plans to pick it up on Wednesday. I was terrified. Although I had driven some in Belize, that beat-up van had come with the house and the road signs were in English. Plus roads in Belize are so bad it’s more like weaving through an obstacle course, not exactly “driving”. 

This was a new spotless car. The woman who gave us the keys pointed to the tiniest little black mark on the wheel rim and said this was the only damage, if it came back with more than that, I’d be responsible!

Joyce was the navigator. She read through the instructions on her computer that we’d gotten from Google maps in English, and we got out of town, through many round-abouts. The two-lane highway went through scenery that reminded her of Wisconsin and Michigan in the autumn, little low-lying farms nestled between forested hills, flat streams reflecting white clouds in an azure sky.
Les Eyzies
Our destination was Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil (lez a zees). It was the place where Cro-Magnon man was discovered, “Cro” meaning hole or cave, and Magnon was the landowner’s last name. 

From a film showing
how flint tools were used
to create the Cro-Magnon Venus
A large museum, welcome center, and dozens of small hotels and restaurants make up the town, which pretty much closes down after Armistice Day. The one painted cave site, La Font de Gaume, was closed for November so scientists could study it. The closest cave with engravings ran tours for six people at a time, all day, and they were booked. So we purchased the last tour for Cap Blanc, another nearby site, and tickets for the next day at Campanelles.

We had plenty of time to explore the museum that catered equally to adults and children. In small booths were films showing how various objects were made and used by the Paleolithic peoples. Full skeletons of bison, Megalaceros – an enormous moose-like deer, reindeer, and other animals were on display. Beautiful figurines, arrowheads, spear points, scrapers, animal-fat lamps, and other everyday objects filled glass cases. Several full sized figures of men, women and children, both human and Neanderthal were shown in sewn skin clothing with spears, flint knives, and even fitted boots.

Quite a few burials have been found. Neanderthals were the first to perform ritual burials, as indicated by the presence of grave goods and flower pollen. One display had the skeletons of a woman and her young child (maybe three or four years old) that had been found buried together.

We drove up a winding road over the Vezere river and up into the hills to Cap Blanc, named after the white limestone “cap” of the region. Cap Blanc is the site of a rock shelter, a deep overhang, that was carved by someone about 12,000 years ago. We were the only people on the tour so we spent at least an hour with the sculptures.

Our guide was a small man, thin and wiry, who did not speak much English. He managed with gestures, a laser pointer, and enormous enthusiasm, to tell us the story of this frieze of sculptures.

A building protects this incredible site, and only a few people are allowed inside at a time. In the center of a long wall of bas-relief carvings is a horse. A full sized carved figure that is mostly still intact. The belly bulges out and is part of the natural rock formation. One of the horses on the side has its face turned slightly towards the viewer, you can see the shape of the eyebrows and the front of the muzzle. This position is difficult to draw well, and very hard to sculpt. 

Directly below the horse is the burial of a woman, estimated to have died about 10,000 years ago. The bones are replicas, the original pieces are in the Chicago Field museum.

The frieze is thought to have been carved by a single artist. Clearly there is an overall symmetry to the group with bison and horses on either side arranged in the same way. And the style is consistent with one person’s vision.

The guide said experts have determined that with the stone tools available, and the softness of the stone, the entire grouping could have been carved in three months. That’s assuming of course that the artist didn’t have any other work to do, like go hunting. So it may have been executed over several years during lull times, or the man’s community may have supported him while he worked.

Our guide couldn’t hide his romantic nature. He pointed to the fact that only one person was buried there. The woman was about 35 years old when she died, and there were grave goods with her body. She is buried directly below the center horse, and if you stand back, it does appear to be a symmetrical monument, perhaps dedicated to her. It’s not hard to imagine a grief struck sculptor carving his heart out over three or four months, unable to do anything else to ease the pain.

Facial reconstruction of the woman found at Cap Blanc
based on the actual skull in the Field Museum