The cave of Les Combarelles

By | Category: Travel destinations
the valley


When I visited the Dordogne Valley for the first time, I was told about pre-historic caves and paintings and the story stuck in my mind, inspiring me to come back and see them with my own eyes. I was very intrigued to find out about the past and the history of the cave people.

We are often so occupied in our day-to-day routines, worrying about paying bills and other matters that we forget about where we come from and where we are going to after this life. The mystery of our life on Earth gets even more complicated with new findings pushing our history back to 1.7 million years ago.

This trip meant something different for me. I was in search of something unknown. I was looking to connect with those people who created the artwork in the cave. I spent the night in the city of Sarlat, eagerly waiting to go to the Vezere Valley for the caves.

My journey to the heart of the Vezere Valley took only 20 minutes, where we entered the cave of Combarelles near the small village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. The cave used to be inhabited by Cro-Magnon people (described by scientists as early modern humans) approximately 11,000-13,000 years ago. The cave contains pre-historic drawings of animals and symbols on sandy, uneven walls. Walking through a very narrow passage approximately one-metre wide, the guide warned us that the height of the original cave was very low. It is not as it originally was because it has been excavated and enlarged to make it possible for visitors to walk through more easily.

a representation of what the cave shows

a representation of what the cave shows

I could see the original gate high above my head. There are two caves in Combarelles, but currently only one of them is open to the public. The dark cave zigzags in a 240metre long passage. Its height used to be as low as 50cm with the maximum height and width of 2metres. Only five of us could enter the cave with the guide at a time. Our guide told us that each day there are a limited number of visits and only a maximum of 6 persons are allowed to enter the cave in each visit, to preserve the structural integrity of the cavity.

The artists, all those thousands of years ago, must have had to crawl inside the cave in absolute darkness holding some kind of lighting in order to make their engravings.  Why? What not paint in a more easily accessible location? Why here? Was the location significant to them?

Scientists officially discovered the cave in 1901. Louis Capitain Henri Breuil  and Denis Peyrony led the excavations of the engravings of Les Combarelles Cave which had a major impact on the understanding and the acceptance of parietal art. It was an explosive moment in the world of pre-history, for there are nearly 800 drawings, which could be divided into over 100 distinct sets.  There are no surviving colour paintings in this cave, but traces of dye indicate that the drawing may have originally been in colour.

20140921_114329[1]copyThe illustrations of animals and stylised human figures are engravings depicted with extraordinary skill. The fine and precise drawings are up to 5mm deep with outlines tinted in black. We can observe that the animals which were drawn in their original life size. In some drawings, it is just the head that is depicted. They also portray animals walking or running and sometimes several animals are superimposed with a very high degree of precision.

These revelations show the intellectual and technical abilities of those prehistoric artists. They were perfect humans, as intelligent and capable as people today, but their world and surroundings were very simple.

I found it amazing to understand why they went to so much trouble to make their mark. What they created could be the work of full-time artists or the work of several casual visitors. Was it their curiosity or some kind of spiritual experience? We can only speculate and there may never be a definite answer. Their abstract creations are open to all kinds of interpretations. We are not certain what their intention was and whether there is any meaning behind it. Whatever it is, they are communicating with future various ways through their sketches. Was the cave some kind of sanctuary or temple? Was it an art gallery? It is a puzzle, which may bare a fuller picture by deeper research into several other caves in the region.

the starting point for the caave

the ticket office

As the guide was pointing out to us various figures and engravings, we walked through the narrow passages of the cave and observed engravings of a wild horse, a cave bear, a lion and a mammoth in disbelief. Some of the animals are now extinct.

I questioned the integrity and originality of what we saw. Luckily, the guide patiently explained theories about claims and discoveries by top archeologists, findings and drew our attention to other items such as spears and bone harpoons which were found in the Combarelles Cave that are displayed in the National Museum of Prehistory in the village of les Eyzies. The guide also referred to the carbon dating as a method used in identifying the age of drawings and any object found in the cave using the properties of radiocarbon.

I was in deep thought and sensed that I was connecting with those artists, that their soul was present even. I felt their presence along with their work. The air inside the cave was very fresh and pleasant, more than what it was like outside. I thought the air was controlled by a special air conditioning system but the guide told me that the airflow is natural. She explained that the 300-metre long cave was formed by an underground river. The same river is still running, creating continuous fresh air. The rivers make their way through the rock, forcefully drilling a passage.

and how it was first presented to the world

My visit today was only a taste of one of many caves in France which are UNESCO world heritage sites. Combarelles cave is one of the thousand caves in Perigord. I am yet to see the caves of Font-de-Gaume and Lascaux II near Les Eyzies to explore deeper into prehistoric art.

My interest has been heightened even more by the recent discovery of rock paintings found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, as it may be as old as the earliest European cave art.

The Tourist Office of Sarlat and Vezere Valley can give directions to all the things to see and do near Sarlat and many other interesting places in the Dordogne Valley and Vezere Valley regions.

Images and story © Mohammed Reza Amirinia

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