If you are like me, you may have thought idly about the dark places of the world, where no lights shine, where the dark is a tangible force. I have read books that have said darkness can be palpable but I never really believed it until this last summer when I got the chance to visit nine caves with prehistoric cave art in southern France.
The names of the caves are exotic: Berinfal, Font de Gaume, Pech Merle, Rouffignac, Cougnac, The Cave of the Sorcerer, Villars, Niaux, and Gargas all sound like they came from a fantasy novel, but they are real places, old places, that reach into the foundations of the human mind. They are beautiful and haunting, and each is different.
Cave Art, that is both paintings and engravings, is in the Hollywood version, the caveman’s leisurely pastime, something to do after slaying mammoths and fighting off cave bears. It is now thought that the caves were never inhabited, that Cro-Magnon man rarely hunted mammoths, and while cave bears did live in caves they went extinct long before mankind came to the caves. The Hollywood version is very wrong, so wrong that it might not even be correct to call prehistoric people “cavemen”. Perhaps a better term would be “Spiritual Man” because the caves were probably used as religious sites, with the many paintings, hand prints, and etchings having some long lost symbolic meaning.
It is hard to understand exactly what the caves meant to prehistoric people, or why they went to great lengths to paint figures in often hard to get to and dangerous caverns, but you can feel the power of such places when you are standing hundreds of feet below ground gazing at a mammoth painted out of reach high above your head.
No two caves are alike. If you see one and say, “see one and you’ve seen them all,” you’ve lied, put fallacy to your lips, and committed pejorative apostasy. Each cave has its own character, almost a personality or anima, influenced by temperature, moisture, shape, size, what kind of art there is in it, if there is modern lighting, even how large a group you go in with. It is hard to say what these caves are like without other people with you, but a few give the impression of an immense presence. They feel haunted, not by ghosts but by time and if you lag behind your tour group, when the guide’s electric torch drops away, the encircling dark comes around you as if it wants to claim you, as if the primitive forces of the Earth want to drag you back not just to the Ice Ages, but further to when there was nothing but water percolating through limestone rocks, chewing into the hills, and opening up time itself in the stone.
Bernifal Grotte de Bernifal (Bern·e·fall)
Bernifal is a cave outside of the medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda. Sarlat itself is a fascinating place to see. The streets in its city center are cramped enough that it is barely able to accommodate cars so it is possible to wander around and pretend you’ve time-traveled.
The cave is up a forest path away from the main highway into town. The path is fairy tale perfect with deep, dark woods. The trailhead begins near an abandoned house and goes into the forest around the limestone cliffside that makes up the surrounding valley.
First discovered in the early 1900s, by way of a small air hole, Bernifal’s prehistoric entrance has been covered up by the centuries. An artificial entrance has been opened in the hillside. Inside there is some graffiti from the turn of the century, but the majority of the cave is untouched.
It is a narrow cave, often wet, and it goes back quite a distance to a few large galleries with impressive stalagmite and ’tite formations that look like brown dripped stone wax. The cave is dark, the only light is from the guide. Because the cave is privately owned, tours in English are impossible, as there is only one guide, the owner, Gilbert Pémendrant, a short Frenchman who seems to have stepped whole out of a fairy tale himself.
There are almost no paintings in Bernifal, however there are several engravings of animal figures. Some of these etchings change depending on what angle they are seen from and are hard to spot unless the light hits them at just the right angle. There are also many tectiforms, that is abstract symbols with no concrete meaning, and at least two extremely rare human faces that partly use physical rock features to achieve their design. Somebody must have seen a face via pareidolia and then emphasized it with paint. That this happened over 10,000 years ago is incredible. Before there was anything of our world, these representations of faces, mammoths, horses, and bison were under the valley.
One of the few paintings in the cave is that of two hands on the underside a low overhang. The painter would have laid his hand on the rock and then blew powdered paint from his mouth to create a blue halo of “spray paint” around a negative image of a hand.
Due to its cramped, dark, and wet nature, Bernifal is particularly spooky. Humans like to anthropomorphizes things. The feeling or presence we feel is various things playing off your senses like the shape of the cave, how much water there is, how cold or hot it is, how the shadows look. Our minds then interpret these as an overall ambiance sometimes friendly, or other times threatening. In extreme cases it gives the feeling of being haunted. We take in the silence and shape to create a living space in our own minds. In Bernifal, there is a slight feeling of dread when you are the last person in your tour group that is simply absent from other caves. It feels lonely, as if the cave itself doesn’t want you to leave. The mind’s fantasy continues even to imagine being locked in the cave, which is at least possible, because the entrance is blocked by a heavy wooden door to keep out vandals. To be alone in the dark of such a place would invite madness. Madness in the absurdity that you could never be truly alone in the cave.
Font de Gaume Grotte de Font de Gaume (Font de Gaum)
Font de Gaume is perhaps the most famous decocted cave in the region around Sarlat. It boasts rare polychromatic paints including eighty-two bison.
The cave has not been left entirely natural; it has an added non-slip pathway and an abrasive “welcome mat” to rub off any dangerous art-destroying flour visitors’ shoes may have picked up in the surrounding areas. Tours can be in English or French but tickets have to be bought well in advance. The path up to the cave offers cinematic vistas of the surrounding mountain glens with the best of France laid out around it.
Font de Gaume was a medieval lookout point, but the cave art wasn’t discovered until the early 20th Century. This is strange since medieval people would have seen the art, but none ever commented on it or recognized it. Without any concept of prehistory, anybody who saw cave art would have ascribed it to contemporary pagan worship. We are very lucky that no Church officials found out about the caves, for they surely would have destroyed them as the modern day Taliban have done to important Buddhist sites.
There is too much art in the cave to see in the twenty minute tours, but the main draw here is a hall of bison drawn on either wall in red, blues, and browns. The bison are perfectly rendered often aided by natural rock outcroppings to appear three dimensional. The skill with which these bison are drawn is nearly unsurpassed in any age. To show just how skilled the art in Font de Gaume is, near the entrance is a portrait of two deer, one male, one female. The male is licking the female’s head. The mastery of this painting is matched only by the tender feeling invoked. One woman in our tour group started crying on seeing the deer. The awe the paintings inspire is very difficult to describe. It washes over you in waves and shivers, and you are never sure if it is the chill of the cave or if it is the bison in front of you. When you later stop and think that the paintings date from 17,000 BCE and try to image the people who painted it, standing where you were standing, the chill comes back and stays long after you have left the cave.
Pech Merle Centre de Préhistoire du Pech-Merle (Pesh Mell)
Located by the isolated mountain town of Pech-Merle, this cave is wide and spacious able to hold of all of Bernifal in most of its chambers. Its rock formations are spectacular, if one wanted to visit the cave for the stalagmites and stalactites alone, the cave would be more than worth the visit. The cave is easy to access because artificial lighting and guardrails have been added. Tours in English are hard to get but pamphlets are available. Only seven hundred visitors are allowed in a day, but the tour groups are around thirty people each. Such large groups means that it is hard to stay near the guide at times and it destroys the mysterious, creepy ancient ambiance such a place must have had when our distant ancestors painted it.
Whatever spiritual presence the cave used to have, it is still worth visiting. Bison, deer, and horses adorn the walls. One of the most famous images from any cave are Pech Merle’s horses. Painted on a standing rock slab. The larger horse uses the natural shape of the slab for its head. The horse are surrounded with blue dots which also appear in the horses too. It is thought that these dots are primarily symbolic, though new research suggests that the horses of the period may have been spotted. Around both horses are negative images of hands created using the “spray paint” method.
At the end of the tour there is a small side chamber with a prehistoric cave bear den, thought the real attraction here is the odd sight of a giant oak tree root that has broken through the cave roof and descended halfway to the floor.
Rouffignac Grotte de Rouffignac (Rough·ing·yack)
The Cave of Rouffignac is a bit of an oddity. It features more mammoths than any other cave in Europe or indeed the world. Its floor is a strange clay-like mud and its passages are so long that a small electric train has been installed out of necessity just so people can access the cave.
It is a “dead” cave, not geologically active. There are no stalagmites, or calcite formations. Instead flint forms on the walls in clumps. It is also a very dark and spooky cave with unusual geometric passages that seem to stretch off into infinity.
A large number of cave bear dens are in the cave. Thousands of generations of bears lived in the cave before man’s arrival and when they woke up from hibernation they would sharpen their claws on the walls. Thousands of cave bear marks run down the entrance of the cave. They look like primitive cave art themselves, almost.
There is a lot of graffiti from the Middle Ages near the front of the cave. The medieval people apparently feared the cave and so would write their names and dates on the walls to show how brave they were and how far in they dared to go. Seeing things such as “Abbé Busoni 1440” isn’t unusual and the old-fashioned handwriting has an appeal all its own.
Like Font de Gaume, it seems strange that medieval people never noticed the art, indeed this first made scientists skeptical about the authenticity of the drawings (most are drawn with magnesium oxide, which can’t be accurately dated). But certain anatomical details of the mammoths that weren’t known until the discovery of frozen mammoths have since authenticated the cave.
The art of Rouffignac is mostly mammoths including entire herds in multiple areas separated by a distance of several meters. Masterfully minimalist, no stroke of paint is wasted.
In the back of the cave is Rouffignac’s showstopper. A pit drops down into darkness and around the pit on the ceiling, as if the pit is a spiritual waterhole are elk, deer, bears, lions, mammoths, and ibex. These paintings are only a few feet above the head and continue on to the walls of the area. To see them so close is incredible. Any visit to the Dordogne area of France is not completely without visiting the Cave of Rouffignac.
Cougnac Grottes de Cougnac (Con·yack)
This is two caves. One is geological only, with no paintings. The other is prehistorical. Photos are allowed in the first cave, which is an amazing photo opportunity assuming you have a camera suited for taking pictures in low light.
The geologic cave is filled with millions of stalagmites, delicate calcite structures, semi-translucent stalactites all with glistening drops of water on their ends that sparkle as you walk by them.
The prehistoric cave also has incredible calcite formations. The cave is incredibly beautiful. The place sparkles with formations look like piled ice-cream scoops covered with sugar or diamond-like glittering rocks rising from the floor, and flows of translucent caramel-colored calcite curtains.
In context, the prehistoric art might seem small and unimportant when compared to the natural beauty of the cave, but there they are painted in the very back in red. Ibex and elk and two extremely rare human figures depicted as being killed by spears.
The entrance to Cougnac is under a church annex that contains a few interesting medieval coffin lids and other artifacts until “Money can be raised for a local museum.”
The cave is damp and cold, it is best to take a heavy coat.
The Cave of the Sorcerer Saint-Cirq Grotte Préhistorique du Sorcier
Surrounded by medieval lookouts carved into the rock cliff, the Cave of the Sorcerer, or the Cave of the Rock of Saint Cirq, is the size of a modest room. It contains a colony of bats and has some interesting engravings. There are no paintings in the cave and if there ever were, water flooding the cave at the end of the Ice Age would have destroyed them. The engravings were the only prehistoric art that could survive the rising water levels.
One of the engravings is an extremely rare human figure with a face. A “sorcerer”, a man with a musical instrument and an exaggerated penis. It resembles an American Southwest Kokopelli.
Why human forms are so rare in cave art is not known though there are theories about it being taboo in some way. The caves for the most part were never lived in, meaning they were probably religious sites. This lends credence to theories about shamanistic beliefs and fear of drawing human figures that lead directly from the idea of capturing power from images much like how certain religious groups believe photographs can steal souls. This is all speculation, of course, but it does provide the mind with interesting fodder.
Villars Grottes de Villars (Vil·are)
Before entering Villars Cave visitors sit through a twenty minute video about the cave’s formation.
All prehistoric caves are products of water chewing through limestone and carving out subterranean galleries. Some like Rouffignac stop there and never develop the calcite formations that continuous water brings, others like Cougnac will probably completely fill with calcite thousands of years from now and only be veins of calcite in the mountains.
Villars is mainly of geologic interest. The cave paintings are mostly covered by calcite, the vast bulk of which are probably hidden forever. If Cougnac Cave is the King of Calcite then Villars is the Emperor. The entire cave is filled with glittering white crystal. The ceiling is filled with millions of transparent stalactites that create the unnerving impression of being under a glass spike trap.
The cave art itself is a few horses visible through transparent calcite on the wall. Probably magnesium oxide, the normally black horses appear a phantom blue through the white glass-like layers of rock.
There is also a chincy sound and light show in the middle of the cave’s tour meant to illustrate how the slightly acidic water eroded out the cave while illuminating (literally) various geological features such as calcite towers, but it is goofy and more a distraction than anything else.
Niaux Niaux (Ne·ew/New)
Niaux Cave is one of the largest prehistoric caves. It is almost entirely in its natural state. There are no walkways or any emplaced lights. As a consequence it is a dark and slippery cave with standing pools of water. Illumination is provided by hand lamps given to each of the visitors prior to entry. The paintings are 800 meters beyond the entrance so visitors must hike through some steep and sometimes very narrow passages.
Despite the small size of a few passages, the cave’s chambers are huge, easily able to accommodate most suburban houses and in some cases two or three two story homes, backyards, front yards, and circular driveways all. The cave is enormous having stone hills and valleys inside it.
The cave art is located in a very large echo chamber that gives up to eight seconds of reverberation. The art, mostly bison, lines the wall of this circular chamber. The impact is so powerful that it sucks the breath away.
Ibex appear to dance around the bison. Some of the bison are drawn realistically, and others symbolically with heads, horns, or humps. All are rendered skillfully by the artist.
The push to keep out light has helped preserve the ambiance of the cave that is lost in Villars or Pech Merle and other caves open to the public. It still feels spiritual in Niaux and it is easy to imagine Cro-Magnon man walking into that magical world.
Gargas Grottes Préhistoriques de Gargas (Gar·gah)
Gargas is a cave with history and some of the most varied types of prehistoric art. From carvings, engravings, paintings, and hand prints, Gargas has it all.
There is an extensive museum at the visitor center featuring French, English, and Spanish interactive touch screen exhibits explaining every aspect of the cave before you even enter. You can learn about the 1500s explorer who thought the stalagmites were phalluses built to worship Venus by pagans, or the serial killer who supposedly used Gargas as a hideout, or the discovery of the art in 1906 (once again, surprising how no one seemed to notice it before this time), or how the scientists combat the green mold that periodically tries to take over the cave.
The cave itself has beautiful rock formations and numerous painted animals, but one thing that Gargas has more of than any other cave is hand prints. Done using the “spray-paint” method, there are many men, women, and children’s hands, some missing fingers. It is not known if the fingers are really missing or whether they were bent when the images were created for some unknown reason. Theories include disfiguring genetic or contagious diseases, to ritual self-mutilation. That the hand prints appear to have been created in some instances thousands of years apart only adds to the mystery.
Nobody knows why Ice Age humans created cave art. Nobody knows what the art means. We are stuck with the impact it has on us without knowing what is impacting us.
Think: 20,000 years ago, a teenage boy left a footprint in one of the great galleries in Pech Merle Cave. 20,000 years ago a horse is drawn on a ceiling using scaffolding to get it so high, 10,000 years ago a bison is painted right next to it. And today you can look at it. But why did they do it?
One theory goes like this: Humans are symbolic creatures. Our minds make metaphor, see meanings, and projects, extrapolates. The need to interpret, to make sense of the world, and to create is universal. Magnesium oxide bison, ibex, bears, and mammoths may have represented more than the animals they depict. Perhaps a story, a history, a past, a sense of cultural identity. An animation of ideas, an explanation of the natural world, an exchange of thoughts. A message to others.
We have received the message, without its meaning, yet not divested of its power. And there is the implicit message that whoever they were, they were there. That they walked with their mortal minds, and mortal hands creating immortal art. They are not different from us, they are not removed from us by time or space because, in a real sense, they are us.