What makes us human - entrance to the Rouffignac cave

Last summer, I spent time in Bordeaux and the surrounding wine districts with my mum and sister. A highlight in the area was the ancient cave art in the nearby Vézère Valley.

There are many excellent caves to visit in the valley. Having studied archaeology, I have a penchant for prehistory, and if you too are into this sort of thing, I highly recommend a visit to the Rouffignac cave as well as the more famous Lascaux cave.

The two caves are very different, although they are both from the Upper Palaeolithic (aka. late Stone Age, between 50 000 and 10 000 years ago). This is a most interesting period in prehistory, because this is the time humans started making art. Cave paintings (Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira are perhaps the most famous caves), little figurines and various other works of art all stem mostly from this period.

What makes us human?

This must be significant to the evolution of man, and is surely one of the milestones of our intellectual development. The concept of what makes us human has always fascinated me, and so I picked up a copy of ‘The Mind in the Cave’ by David Lewis-Williams, sold at the well-stocked gift shop at Lascaux. I highly recommend it if you are interested in the subject.

So what does make us human – as opposed to apes? The making of art is interesting, because it signifies some higher purpose. But why did prehistoric man choose to create wall paintings inside caves? The common perception seems to be one of ‘art for art’s sake’: that man simply had the urge to create something for no apparent reason.

Lewis-Williams doesn’t buy this, he believes this is simplifying prehistoric people. I agree. We are wrong to view them as primitive and uncivilised, and cave paintings such as the ones at Rouffignac prove this, in my opinion.

Rouffignac cave

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Outside the Rouffignac cave entrance, waiting for the tour to begin.

The cave at Rouffignac is a narrow cluster of passageways that stretches several kilometres into the hillside. You can only enter with a guide and you’re on an electric train that takes you about two kilometres inside the cave.

No photographs are allowed inside, for obvious reasons, but picture yourself inside a damp, cold, pitch black cave – and, if you’re travelling back to the artists’ time – add the possibility of bumping into the fearsome cave bear. You’ll see cave bear scratch marks on the walls and remains of their lairs.

This must have been a dangerous place. So why would you crawl on your hands and knees (the ceiling height of the cave was about 1 meter in prehistoric times) for what must have seemed like an age, to lie on your back and create great works of art you could hardly make out in the flickering candlelight?

It makes no sense that it was on a whim. Why endanger yourself to create art for art’s sake? That counteracts our natural instincts. It doesn’t make sense that prehistoric people would do this. To endanger oneself goes against evolution, so to risk death, it must be something very important indeed.

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Rouffignac cave entrance

We will probably never know the reason why these elaborate and intricate paintings were created, but religion seems to have had something to do with it. The cave paintings depict various prehistoric animals: aurochs, giant deer, woolly rhinoceros, the Przewalski horse, and of course the mammoth. Charms and spells to ensure luck with hunting, perhaps?

We can only speculate, but Lewis-Williams presents some educated guesses. He thinks this must have been a very conscious action, one that shows development in intellectual abilities. Caves like these are scattered about central Europe; one theory is that they form a hunting route. Or that they point to old settlements.

We really have no way of knowing for sure. But one thing is certain: they are important, and need to be treated as such. The people connected to Lascaux are acutely aware of this.

Lascaux cave

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Cat and I at Lascaux, waiting for the tour to begin. Little sis was tired of caves at this point – and tired of listening to guides she only vaguely understood, with only one year of school French. (We hadn’t arranged anything in advance, so only tours in French were available).

Lascaux II is perhaps the most famous of all the caves. So famous that it can afford an inch-by-inch copy of itself in a neighbouring cave, which is in fact the cave we are allowed to see.

The original Lascaux cave was discovered in 1940, by four kids out looking for their dog. It opened to the public after the war but was closed only a few years later because visitors exhaling carbon-dioxide caused irreparable damage to the fragile paintings. Instead, an accurate copy of the cave was created. And while it’s very interesting to see – it’s conscientiously copied and very well done – I do feel slightly cheated, no matter how understanding I try to be.

This cave is very different from Rouffignac; it is shaped more like a series of large rooms, more spacious and with higher ceilings. The animals painted here are more impressive than at Rouffignac, granted, and the ancient artists have used several colours and even ‘signed’ their work by making hand prints on the wall.

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The old entrance to the Lascaux cave

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Lascaux area

My Stone Age collection

The gift shop at Rouffignac has a very good collection of Upper Palaeolithic art copies for sale, and I managed to snag several pieces to go with my stone axe and arrow collection. Here’s the Palaeolithic part of my collection, comprising stone axes and arrows, as well as reproduction art.

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These are genuine stone axes and arrows in chert from the Middle Palaeolithic era (300 000 – 30 000 years ago), from Southern Europe. Possibly of Mousterian culture, Homo Sapiens or Neanderthal origin:

The two chert axes below are from the Neolithic period (approx. 7 000 years ago). They are from North-West Sahara, and are possibly from the Ténérian culture, Homo Sapiens origin. They illustrate how mankind evolved and learned to make more specified tools:

Neolithic axes

And finally, my favourite repro piece: Venus of Willendorf, a mysterious faceless and curvy woman from Upper Palaeolithic Austria (approx. 24 000 – 22 000 years ago).

Venus

Rouffignac and Lascaux practicals:

  • The Vézère Valley is about a 2-hour drive from Bordeaux.
  • Rouffignac cave is open to the public between 20 March and 1 November in 2016. You can buy tickets at the site for EUR 7.50 (4.80 for children 6 – 12). The number of visitors is restricted to 550 per day, and you have to be part of a tour of minimum 20 people, so prepare to wait. Bring a book. The tour is in French, but audio-guides are available in English and various other languages for an additional EUR 1.50.
  • Lascaux: Information on Lascaux opening hours are here. In summer, you must buy tickets at the tourist office in the nearby village of Montignac. We came to the cave unprepared, and had to turn back to Montignac for tickets then return to the cave.
  • Montignac is a cosy but quiet village, with warm stone houses and old bridges spanning the Vézère River. Wouldn’t be a bad place to spend the night.

Have you seen cave paintings? Thoughts on what makes us human?

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Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites from around the world.