My Summer Vacation

In July 1997 I vacationed in France, probably the country with the richest record of prehistoric humanity in the world. The record is especially rich in the Dordogne region of southwest France, and, within the Dordorgne, around the village of Les Eyzies, the self-styled "World Capital of Prehistory". I was lucky enough to be able to spend a few days there.

The first Cro-Magnon skeletons were discovered in 1868 under a rock overhang at one end of town. A small plaque commemorates the discovery. Nearby is the Abri Pataud archeological site. On the other end of town are the Font de Gaume and Les Combarelles sites, both of which are open to the public and contain cave paintings.

Neandertal sculpture Only a few kilometers out of town are the sites of La Madeleine (after which the Magdalenian period is named), and Le Moustier (site of a famous Neandertal skeleton discovered in 1908, and for which the Mousterian toolkit used by Neandertals is named).

The Musée National de Préhistoire is in the centre of the village, perched underneath an overhanging cliff. There was a fascinating temporary exhibition of pictures showing how Neandertals have been depicted since their discovery. This museum is also one of the few places where you can see a genuine hominid fossil: the partial skeleton of a Neandertal infant from Roc de Marsal is exhibited to the public. Outside the museum is the famous statue of a Neandertal done by Paul Darde in 1930.

Roque St. Christophe The cliff dwellings of Roque St. Christophe have been inhabited almost continuously for over 50,000 years. There is a wonderful view out over the valley of the Vézère River. The earliest inhabitants were Neandertals (a diorama shows a Neandertal defending his family against a cave bear), but during the middle ages a small fortified town of up to 1000 people lived on the ledges and at the base of the cliff.

Very near Roque St. Christophe is the PréhistoParc at Tursac. This outdoor park has full-size dioramas of extinct animals, and of scenes from Neandertal and Cro-Magnon life. The most elaborate scene is of a group of Neandertals moving in to kill a mastodon which they have trapped in a pit fall. This exhibit and a couple of others are enhanced by a soundtrack which plays every 8 minutes and scares little kids very effectively.

Rouffignac Cave We weren't able to visit Lascaux or some of the other caves, since they are heavily booked in advance. Fortunately, it was possible to visit the Grotte de Rouffignac, about 20 km away, without any advance booking. Rouffignac is especially famous for the large number of mammoths painted on its walls. A small electric train takes visitors about a mile into the cave. The art dates from about 13,000 years ago, and consists of monochrome line drawings and carvings, not as spectacular as the more elaborate paintings at Lascaux, but still very good. As well as the mammoths, there is an especially good trio of woolly rhinoceroses. The Great Ceiling, deep within the cave, contains a frieze of 66 animals done at a point where the ceiling was originally only 2 or 3 feet high. The floor has been dug away so that visitors are now able to walk into the chamber and look at the whole ceiling.

For anyone who is interested in prehistory, Les Eyzies is a destination that should not be missed.

This page is part of the Fossil Hominids FAQ at the Archive.

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