A journey into prehistory
A couple of weeks ago my parents came out to visit me in the South West of France for a holiday over my February break. I couldn’t wait to see them and catch up after several months away from home and I was excited to show them around. As a little surprise for them I planned a trip to a small village in the Pyrenees Mountains called Niaux to see the renowned “Grotte de Niaux”. My dad had told me so many stories about the famous ‘grottes’ of Southern France: Lascaux; Font de Gaume; and Niaux. These caves contain paintings, drawn between 30,000 to 12,000 years ago by some of the first anatomically modern human beings! Advances in science and technology have enabled scientists and historians to carbon date the paintings accurately; and to discover the tools they used to draw the paintings, as well as the materials they used. My dad had studied these caves at university as an anthropology student but he had never had the chance to see one himself. So, I decided this had to change!
We travelled to Niaux by train, through the plains and then into the mountains. The scenery was breathtaking as we came into the village, nestled amongst the snow-capped mountains. The next morning we climbed up the side of a mountain to get to the entrance to the cave. Many caves which contain prehistoric paintings are no longer accessible to the public. The carbon dioxide that we breathe out and the effects of the harsh artificial lights that the paintings were lit up with quickly degraded the quality of the paintings and so for many caves now, visitors can only see reconstructions of the original paintings. However, Niaux is an exception. By limiting the number of people allowed in the cave at a time and limiting the artificial light used to illuminate the paintings, the paintings in Niaux have been preserved so that visitors can see the originals. They were incredible! We saw paintings of bison and mountain goats and deer etched onto the walls in charcoal and earthy dyes as clearly as though they had been done yesterday. They were actually drawn around 14000 years ago!
Many people believe that these paintings were drawn as part of an almost religious ritual, while others believe they depict the everyday life experiences of the men and women who lived in these caves all those years ago. Maybe we will never know for sure ... but one thing is for certain ... those cave men were far better at drawing than I am!