A glimpse into the dawn of man – The Pech Merle Caves

pechmerle1 Have you ever thought of how it all began?  The human race, the rise of civilsations and of course the global climate change?  Well apart from history books, many of us may have watched the wonderful documentary The Species Odyssey by the French director Jacques Malaterre.   History began with man’s ability to communicate not just orally, but through the invention of writing.  Writing evolved from drawing first as symbols, hieroglyphs and pictograms.  And then, we started to go places….

What would you say to the chance to visit such a place- where you could see man’s footsteps in time?  You could see drawings and messages of our ancestors.


Welcome to the Pech Merle Caves in Southern France near the small town of Cabrerets.  Southern France and Northern Spain are dotted with many limestone caves which were discovered by the men of the Ice Age and used for homes and rituals.  Almost all were closed to the public when it was found that human breath and camera flashes had damaged the caves of Lascaux, where some of the most elaborate drawings have been found.  What had been preserved for millennia had been damaged in a decade!  So only archeologists and scientists are now allowed inside them.   Scientific study of these and the new caves still being discovered tell us a little about prehistoric lives, but much remains to be studied.  At present Pech Merle is the only cave open to the public, though the number of visitors is restricted.  Here we come face to face with our beginnings and that, I think is worth a lifetime’s travel.


With our tickets in hand, a group of fifteen collected around the guide at Pech Merle.  Sally was also with us.  She had been taking us around the vine-clad countryside and showing us the medieval villages and wayside wells as we drove to Pech Merle.  We were told that the Pech Merle cave was 2 meters long but only about a third of it was open to the public.  The rest were under scientific study.


And then a heavy, large door in the wall was opened by the French guide.  Pitch dark inside, it felt like the entrance to Aladdin’s cave.  The guide lit her torch and asked us to mind the steps.  We descended 40 metres below the ground.  Then she switched off her torchlight and switched on overhead lights- soft and yellow.  There was a collective gasp as we stared at the long cave wall before us- herds of mammoths, bisons and aurochs marched.  And men with spears gave chase.  All around us in the cold, cold cave were scenes of men and animals as they lived at the end of the last Ice Age.


The earliest drawings are 24,600 years old.  Then about 10,000 years ago, a landslide sealed in the Paleolithic entrance.  The cave remained intact, to be discovered after millennia by two young boys (Andre David and Henri Dutertre) in 1922.  But tradition has it that the existence of the cave was known to the local villagers and occasionally someone ventured inside.  We began to wind through the cave.  The guide kept switching the lights on and off.  This, she said was to prevent any unnecessary exposure of the old drawings to light.  So as we passed through, only the area where we stood was lighted up.


The Ice Age people had a special use for the Pech Merle cave.  They were probably not used as living quarters, as no hearths have been found.  But they came in to draw scene after scene and successive generations used the place for thousands of years.  It is a wonder that men came in to the pitch dark caves and drew the marvelous pictures in the light of spluttering lamps of animal fat.  The most ancient pictures of 24,600 years are in the Combel Gallery but are not open to the public.  Only a few marks and symbols of this period are seen.  There are dotted horses and a fish measuring over a metre is drawn alongside with similar dots along its body.  These are 20,000 years old.  There are symbols drawn on the ceiling from this period on which female figures, circular marks and mammoths have been superimposed.  Drawings are interposed on each other as if the art didn’t matter but the process of drawing was of the utmost importance. There are numerous handprints in red all over the cave.  They were made by blowing paint from one’s mouth around the hand to leave a stenciled image.  To think that a human hand left his ‘signature mark’ on a wall complete with the lines and fingerprints for thousands of years!  One is baffled before their message, if any.


There are also relief drawings where the artist had seen the lie of the stone and simply painted an outline over it.  The texture of the natural limestone and light from lamps (now electric lights) bring them to life.  The head, trunks and limbs of a mammoth follow the lines of the rock, the artist had used only two lines to suggest its back and belly.


In the bear cave, we are shown scratches of bear’s nails on the stone wall.  An outline of a huge bear’s head drawn 13000 years ago stared ahead.  In the Combel Gallery a hollow in the stone was made by a huge bear when he slept there every hibernating season. The bear’s lair is a fairly deep hollow and could have been used over the years by many bears. Did bear and man share the cave.  Perhaps not at the same time, but scientists believe bears were important to the Ice Age people in some spiritual way.  We were shown bones of reindeer and mammoth and even hyenas and deer.


There are human forms –basic lines to portray head and hands, feet and torso.  A circle of women figures on the ceiling engaged in an unknown, ancient rite.  A man lay with lines all around his body.  Was it a man injured in a hunt, a human sacrifice or was it the spiritual force of nature entering him?  Besides the ‘wounded man’ there is the ‘bison woman’.  It is a most intriguing figure as it almost looks like a woman is metamorphosing into a bison.  There are symbols drawn above the head.  Was it part of a hunting ritual?


As we end our tour there is a fenced off area in the middle of the uneven cave floor.  It is lower than the rest of the floor and we are told that it is the bottom of a now dry pool.   In it are imprinted the footprints of a young boy and a girl- footprints which entered and then left the cave.  Carbon dating had established the footprints to be from 15000 years ago.  At one time the pool lay in the path of a steep and remote part of the cave.  Perhaps the youngsters were exploring the mysterious caves where adults forbade them to enter?




When we come out of the depths of the cave, into the souvenir shop and the bright sunlight, there is a feeling of unreality, of having been given a glimpse into our very beginnings: as we took our first steps in an icy cold world to wrest from it our food and survival; when these drawings and the beliefs they represent were a difference between life and death.  I felt humbled and thankful to have witnessed the first strokes of the journey of civilization.


Pech Merle raises questions, which scientists are striving to answer.  But much will remain unknown  and that is its power.  No mystery story can match the enigma of millennia old handprints and footprints and the purpose of the ancient masters!

I mages see PechMerle.com

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