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Prehistoric Dordogne

When Ancient Man drew his deadly enemies

The discovery of prehistoric drawings in a cave near Vilhonneur in the Charente last December dating back perhaps 25,000 years has renewed interest in the famous Lascaux paintings in the Dordogne. Although the Lascaux pictures are more recent, believed to have been painted in a mere 17,000 BC, they are much more spectacular and offer an extraordinary insight into the capacity and mindset of the ancient Europeans who created them.

The Lascaux grotto, near Montignac, is perhaps the most important prehistoric site in Europe.  Without it we would have had no idea that our forebears were already capable of capturing in art the movement of animals, so much so that bulls, bison and deer seem to be leaping around the visitors. When these images are combined with the particular scene of a wounded bison and a falling man, one of the very rare representations of a human figure, the collection becomes truly unique in the annals of prehistoric art.

Lascaux was discovered in 1940 by four young boys who went down a hole that proved to be the long lost entrance to the caves, to rescue their trapped dog. The caves were opened to the general public in 1949, only to be closed to all but a handful of researchers from 1963, when it became evident that the paintings were becoming seriously damaged through exposure to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Twenty years later, however, a full replica of two complete galleries from the upper part of the caves was opened to visitors. Located just 200 metres from the original site, it contains copies of all the original art, created by using the same tools and methodology as the original cave artists. Although it will never provide that frisson of excitement that comes from seeing the genuine article so many millennia later, it is certainly the next best thing.

Even if Montignac did not have the Lascaux caves on its doorstep, it would still be a magnet for tourists, epitomising the charm of the Dordogne. Bisected by the River Vézère, Montignac’s medieval alleys are lined with houses dating back to the 13th century, a twinkling of an eye perhaps in Lascaux terms, but the symbol of the hamlet’s heyday. The counts of Périgord lived in the castle but all that remains are its keep and the crumbling ramparts that once surrounded the village. An old stone bridge crosses the river to the opposite bank, where more old houses, many timbered with wooden galleries, stand on seemingly precarious piles. For the best view of the valley, and excellent food, visit the Auberge de Castel Merle, perched on the cliffs high above the Vézère. It lies 10km south of Montignac on the D65 and has a small museum with interesting artefacts and several abris, or prehistoric shelters, nearby.

The D706 follows the river closely and leads almost at once to Le Thot, a museum that enthrals children and adults alike with spectacular recreations of prehistoric camp sites. Computer animation enables many of the fierce animals from the post-dinosaur period to be brought back to life. One needs a steady nerve to stand in the path of a charging mammoth in what seems full three-dimensional menace, although most parents just about manage to do so for fear of scorn from their offspring, for whom it is simply a giant PC game.  On the right bank of the river, high above the rocks, stands the Château de Losse, with verdant 16th century walls, elegant symmetry and a breathtaking panorama of the poplar-lined Vézère. Just away from the river is the much more imposing Château de Chabans, once a formidable military obstacle. The round keep dates from the 15th century although the defensive walls, remarkably intact, were built a century or so later. The castle, painstakingly restored a few years ago, has lovely Italianate gardens with gurgling fountains.

The Vézère flows on past La Roque Saint-Christophe, an exceptional cliff rising a breathtaking 80m in height.  Inside, hollowed out like a beehive, are five levels of cave dwellings. They were first used in prehistoric times, then as a defence against the Vikings, and again during the chaos and confusion of the Wars of Religion. On the grand terrace is an interesting model of the whole site. 

All this, however, is but an appetiser for the main course, the village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, a grandiose name with grandiose scenery to match. Les-Eyzies hugs sheer, vertical walls of limestone rock and halfway up the cliff, housed in the 13th century fortress of the Barons of Beynac, is the National Museum of Prehistory. Its fascinating collection of man’s earliest works of art shows how Les Eyzies was once the centre of the known universe, when our ancestors sheltered here during the Second Ice Age. Close by, on the road to St-Cyprien, is the astonishing Grotte de Font-de-Gaume. Overshadowed by the has its own superb, almost as unimaginably ancient collection, of multicoloured cave paintings. They depict each species that was the prey, and of course the deadly enemies, of prehistoric man.

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