The French painted caves are concentrated in the Dordogne region, and date back to deep in Palaeolithic times — the oldest cave art was created around 30,000 BC. I have wanted to visit the caves all my life, and finally got the chance in summer 2019, a few weeks before my 60th birthday.
We walked down a narrow corridor lit only by our guide’s flashlight. She explained that the floor had been dug out to allow people to walk along it, but that in Palaeolithic times the ceiling of the cave was barely a meter above the floor.
This was Combarelles, whose rock engravings date back to around 18,000 BC. It was the first Palaeolithic cave art site I had visited.
The people who carved its walls would have had to crawl along the corridor in pitch darkness, or possibly with the help of primitive torches. They would have been squeezed tight in a narrow passageway formed over thousands of years by water erosion. The first to enter this unnavigated hinterland would have no conception of what awaited them in the darkness.
Many people talk of how emotional it feels to visit the French caves, and I was surprised how much I was affected by this first experience. It was the scale more than anything that made me feel emotional. It felt more like being in a tiny submarine than the expansive museum of cave art that I had expected.
I had read several books about Palaeolithic parietal art – the term “parietal” simply refers to the cave walls on which the prehistoric masterpieces were painted. Lascaux is far and away the most famous of these painted caves, and is often called the Sistine Chapel of Palaeolithic times. The polychrome images include those of bison, aurochs, mammoths, rock shelters, anthropomorphs, and many other enigmatic shapes that have no explanation. From this, I had formed an image of cavernous halls whose walls were covered with the art of ancient times.
But at Combarelles you walk in the dark for nearly a hundred metres before you reach the location of the first engravings. They are tiny, simple, scratched from the rock walls, no paint, none of the ochre expanses you see in the many books on Cave Art. I found the simplicity, and accuracy, of these scratchings very moving. Why had someone risked their lives to create this?
A couple of hours earlier, we had been in a queue at the small shop at Font de Gaume with several dozen other early risers, hoping to get tickets. Despite our best laid plans, we had left from Cantals an hour later than planned, arriving at around nine o’ clock.
We were number 55 and 56 in the queue, and were lucky to get tickets. The number of visitors each day is strictly controlled, to avoid the risk of damage to the millennia-old cave art.
Only six visitors at a time are allowed into Combarelles. No photography is allowed in the caves, and visitors are reminded repeatedly not to touch the walls, as bacteria can damage the works as much as erosion by touch and contact.
I felt stunned when I came out of Combarelles. Walking out into the open light of day reminded me of how terrifying it must have been for the first visitors to enter the depths of the earth, squeezed into a narrow and possibly structurally unstable strait-jacket of rock, with barely any light, and no map. And what had they done? They had made pictures of animals using the most basic of tools.
It was mystifying, but also very moving.