Cave art is found deep in France's Dordogne Valley

Sunday, Feb. 1, 2009 2:23 AM

The Hotel Belle Etoile lies along the cliff walls in La Roque Gageac.

LES EYZIES DE TAC, France - The 12 of us who are gathered together in front of the entrance to the Font de Gaume cave to meet our English-speaking guide whisper together anxiously. It will be a morning of mystery.

The guide tells us we are fortunate to be able to see it; in a year or two this ancient site in the Dordogne Valley of southwestern France will be closed forever to the public.

As she explains how we may not touch the walls or brush against them once inside the cave, a scarlet red dragonfly appears. Easily 6 inches long, with a black-and-white-striped tail, he flits over each of us before darting into the cave. I hope he doesn't touch the walls with his wings as we file in a line behind him to enter the crushing darkness of the low-ceilinged cave.

We pause to let our eyes adjust to the darkness, just as Cro-Magnon artists must have done 40,000 years before. With respect, the guide points her red laser beam at the first bison. He is beautiful, outlined in soft black and colored in dark reds and browns. The beam follows, as she says, "Here is his belly, his sex, his hindquarters, his tail his back, ze humped shoulders, ze horns, his muzzle, his eye, his chest, his forelegs."

The artist has used the natural undulations and clefts in the rock wall to model the bison so that in the wavering light of a rock lamp (or, in our case, a small torch) the bison seems to be moving across the walls of the cave. We see 30 animals in all, mostly bison, but also plump horses with long tails and dainty legs, reindeer and wooly mammoths. Visitors aren't allowed into side caves where there are cows, ibex, wolves, bears, felines, wild oxen, rhinos and Anasazi-like human hands outlined in red.

In one of the bison drawings, the artist has skillfully drawn his back legs onto a stalagtite, putting his legs in a kind of bas-relief. I am struck by the feeling of respect these long-gone artists have shown for the animals they drew. Their eyes are gentle and intelligent; they look strong and show no fear. One exquisitely moving drawing is of a male reindeer with massive antlers. He is licking the head of the first in a line of female reindeer, all rendered in soft brick red and outlined in black. They are all bowing on bended front legs to the beautiful male.

These artists are Magdalanian hunter-gatherers who flourished in southern France from 18,000 B.C. to 10,000 B.C. They didn't live in the same caves their drawings are in, but instead lived nearby in shallow alcoves under overhanging cliffs where they carved out sleeping lofts, eating areas and niches for pots and foodstuffs. There are several enigmatic drawings of simple human forms in the caves, as well as some geometric shapes, but the animals rule here, standing out in black, brown and red relief against the yellow limestone walls.

In the words of art historian Gene Openshaw:"Picture how a Magdalanian would have viewed these paintings. They'd be guided by someone into a cold, echoing cave. In the darkness, someone would light rock lamps and suddenly the animals would flicker to life, moving around the walls like in a prehistoric movie. In front of you a bull would appear, behind you a mammoth. Feel a bond with these people and see how different they are from us. Ultimately, the paintings are as mysterious as humans themselves." Durangoan Esther Greenfield loves to travel and has shared thoughts on her trips periodically in the Herald. 

If you go

For reserved tickets to Font de Gaume before it closes forever, write to fontdegaume@monuments  We stayed at the

beautiful Hotel Belle Etoile in nearby La Roque Gageac (hotel.belle-etoile,, 75 euros for double).