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Stepping-Stones: A Journey through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne

Christine Desdemaines-Hugon
Foreword by Ian Tattersall
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    The cave art of France's Dordogne region is world-famous for the mythology and beauty of its remarkable drawings and paintings. These ancient images of lively bison, horses, and mammoths, as well as symbols of all kinds, are fascinating touchstones in the development of human culture, demonstrating how far humankind has come and reminding us of the ties that bind us across the ages.

    Over more than twenty-five years of teaching and research, Christine Desdemaines-Hugon has become an unrivaled expert in the cave art and artists of the Dordogne region. In her new book she combines her expertise in both art and archaeology to convey an intimate understanding of the "cave experience." Her keen insights communicate not only the incomparable artistic value of these works but also the near-spiritual impact of viewing them for oneself.

    Focusing on five fascinating sites, including the famed Font de Gaume and others that still remain open to the public,Stepping-Stonesreveals striking similarities between art forms of the Paleolithic and works of modern artists and gives us a unique pathway toward understanding the culture of the Dordogne Paleolithic peoples and how it still touches our lives today.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15906-6
    Subjects: Archaeology, History, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiii)
    Ian Tattersall

    There can be few experiences more overwhelming than encountering, for the first time, the finest of the Ice Age cave paintings of southern France and northern Spain. This art, mind-bogglingly ancient though it is, reaches across the millennia, reminding us that the Cro-Magnon artists who created it were us in the most profound of senses. Never before in the long history of human evolution had such art been created, and in its expressiveness and power it has rarely been equaled since. Sometimes miraculously preserved, sometimes sadly faded but eloquent nonetheless, it speaks to something profound and essential in the human...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xiv-xvii)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xviii-xix)
  7. [Illustrations]
    (pp. xx-xxvi)
  8. ONE Freshly Plowed Fields in the Vézère Valley
    (pp. 1-7)

    The first time I held a Mousterian flint sidescraper, I was overcome by a wave of sympathy and admiration for its Neanderthal creator, some 75,000 years old. The perfectly shaped tool fit naturally in the palm of my hand, the curved, finely flaked working edge neither too sharp nor too blunt, ready to do its job, possibly scraping hides.

    This was about 25 years ago. I was with the curator of the Musée National de Préhistoire in his garden overlooking the Vézère River, where he had spread out hundreds of Mousterian stone tools for me to sort. This was his...

  9. TWO Font de Gaume
    (pp. 9-27)

    The steep climb up to the mouth of the cave of Font de Gaume can be experienced as a transition from present to past, a gradual shedding of modern everyday concerns. Bright wildflowers are scattered over the flaky rock surface on the way up. If you’re lucky, you might see some wild orchids in the spring, especially the rare “bee” orchids with their delicate mauve flowers lined up along the stem, each centered with what looks just like an intrusive bee. Small, brilliant-blue butterflies, always in the same spot, fly away as we pass. Farther up, wild strawberries carpet some...

  10. THREE Millions of Years Ago
    (pp. 28-36)

    This modest and all too short attempt to draw a picture of the evolution of humankind is certainly not exhaustive—several books would be needed for that—and not every famous fossil discovery or eminent paleoanthropologist is mentioned, much to my regret. This is more a personal appreciation of what strikes me—a simple onlooker specialized in the art and not in the biology—as important. Which is why the accent is on fascinating issues such as bipedality, the development of the brain, what to think of Neanderthals, the oldest burials, the first tools, and the potential dawn of language....

  11. FOUR Neanderthals and Homo sapiens
    (pp. 37-49)

    The first fossil ever to be found of a human different from ourselves was that of a Neanderthal. The first bones of a Neanderthal were found in Belgium by Philippe-Charles Schmerling in 1829. These were of a child less than two years old and were not then recognized as being of a distinct species. Part of a skull and fragments of a skeleton, discovered in 1856 in a quarry in the Neander Valley (Germany), were first interpreted as belonging to a distinct human “race,” and not until 1863 were the fossils identified as being those of a new species:Homo...

  12. FIVE Combarelles
    (pp. 51-70)

    The engravings of Combarelles cave, 2 kilometers from Font de Gaume cave, were discovered by the owner, a Monsieur Berniche, and his son-in-law in 1901. The two caves are in the same valley, where the Petite Beune stream runs by before joining the Vézère River a couple of kilometers farther on. Unlike Font de Gaume, which is situated high in the cliffs, Combarelles is at valley level, in a small dell encased in humid woodland and carpeted with thick green moss and ferns. It’s a secretive spot, the entrance hidden from the nearby road—or, rather, entrances: there are two...

  13. Color Plates
    (pp. None)
  14. SIX Venus Figures, Blades, Beads, and Bone
    (pp. 71-95)

    Our Cro-Magnon ancestors become more real with every site we visit. Of course, the dates are impressive: art that goes back 12,000 to 17,000 years or more in the caves we’ve just seen. And these are more recent than other cave sites, such as Chauvet, which extends back 32,000 years. Yet these people, through their art, have become surprisingly familiar. We are aware of the fact that they are modern humans just like ourselves, with not only the same physical appearance but also the same mental capacity. These are our brothers and sisters.

    Homo sapiensemerged in Africa at least...

  15. SEVEN Rouffignac
    (pp. 97-120)

    Rouffignac, also known as the “hundred mammoths cave,” is huge: about 10 kilometers of galleries spread out on three superimposed levels. The top level is about 6 kilometers long and the other two—the second consisting of dry galleries and the third of an underground stream—cover the remaining area. The art, thought to be about 14,000 years old, extends over a distance of more than 2 kilometers on the upper level only, with the exception of a few figures down in a pit. For millions of years, this was an underground river. It is important to remember that the...

  16. Figures
    (pp. None)
  17. EIGHT Laurel Leaves and Needles
    (pp. 121-127)

    Rouffignac’s 14,000-year-old mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses make us aware of how cold it must have been during the Magdalenian; we can easily imagine these animals in their familiar Ice Age environment, open steppes stretching far and wide. Far harsher, though, were the climatic conditions during the Early Solutrean, some 8,000 years previous.

    The Solutrean period (from around 22,000 to as late as 17,500 years BP in Spain) covers a geographically limited area, confined during the first few millennia to the regions in France between the Loire and Rhone valleys, and later to those down the Atlantic coast to the Pyrenees,...

  18. NINE Cap Blanc
    (pp. 129-139)

    The Solutrean relief carvings lead us quite naturally to our fourth major parietal art site: Cap Blanc (Dordogne)—not for paintings or drawings this time, but for a sculpted frieze, one of the most impressive ever discovered. The frieze contains at least 14 animals, carved in high and low relief, the central one of which is a life-size horse. This art is not in a cave but outdoors, under an open cliff shelter.

    Cap Blanc is situated in a small valley, where the slow-running Beune stream meanders from east to west and spreads into iris-filled swamps before joining the Vézère...

  19. TEN Art at Its Peak
    (pp. 140-171)

    All four sites we’ve explored, as well as the next one, belong to the Magdalenian period, which followed the Solutrean. This is the last of the Upper Paleolithic cultural epochs. Another culture, called the Badegoulian, after Badegoule (Dordogne), existed between the Solutrean and the Magdalenian periods in some regions. Its flint technology has much more in common with that of the Solutrean than of the Magdalenian, and it is probably an extension of the first, independent of the second. The Magdalenian, from approximately 18,000 to 10,200 years bp for the most recent sites, is by far the most prolific period...

  20. ELEVEN Bernifal
    (pp. 173-192)

    Bernifal cave, our fifth venture, is situated in the Petite Beune Valley about 6 kilometers east of Les Eyzies. The walk from the road to the entrance is already a delight: a distance of approximately half a kilometer through hornbeam woods, among which are scattered maple trees and large oaks. The beauty of hornbeams is not only in their lacy, light green foliage but in the fact that the ground beneath them remains clear of bush and thorn, like a grass garden carpeted with thick moss, wild primroses in the spring, and all sorts of mushrooms in the autumn. The...

  21. Afterword
    (pp. 193-194)

    Sadly, Yvon Pémendrant is no longer with us. His brother, Gilbert, younger by a few years, has replaced him for the visits of Bernifal cave.

    Exciting news was reported in June 2009: a bone flute dated to at least 35,000 years was discovered at Hohle Fels cave in the hills west of Ulm, Germany. The preserved portion of the flute, made from a griffon vulture bone, is more than 21 centimeters long, includes the mouth end of the instrument, and has five fingerholes. This is the oldest known musical instrument. Experts say that it could be as old as 40,000...

  22. Appendix: Sites to Visit
    (pp. 195-202)
  23. Recommended Reading
    (pp. 203-210)
  24. Index
    (pp. 211-222)