The Cave and Cliff Dwellers of the Vézère Valley —by Jinny Batterson
Traveling in Europe produces a different sense of time—my previous benchmarks for “old” settlements, the historic recreations of Williamsburg and Jamestown, Virginia, become mere youngsters in comparison with the Greek and Roman era ruins that dot much of western Europe. Even the relatively “new” churches and cathedrals of France generally date from centuries earlier than the 1607-or-thereabouts thatched mud huts of the initial European settlers at Jamestown.
While the U.S. Southwest contains mysterious remnants of earlier civilizations—Anasazi settlements that flourished about a thousand years ago before being suddenly abandoned—these ruins are still relative newbies compared with the cave and cliff sites excavated over the past century and a half along the middle reaches of the Vézère valley in southwestern France.
According to the best available methods for establishing rough eras, early humans first appeared in the Vézère Valley nearly half a million years ago. I remember reading earlier about the now famous prehistoric paintings at Lascaux—elaborate depictions of animals from about 20,000 years ago, discovered by accident in 1940 by youngsters exploring a cave.
Though I haven’t yet visited the replica of that cave (the original was closed to visitors during the 1960’s because the crush of tourists with their attendant humidity and CO2 was damaging the paintings), I recently wound up along the Vézère where some even earlier settlements have been discovered—a small village called Les Eyzies. After a morning’s taxi ride through misty weather, our driver let my husband and me out at the small vacation settlement at the edge of town where we’d booked a stay. We dropped our luggage at the front desk, then set out with our umbrellas to explore. The first large building we came across was a welcome center for the area’s prehistory attractions, with some basic exhibits about various Vézère valley sites (over 80 of them have been excavated at least partially so far) and how archeology is conducted.
Because we’d opted not to rent a car and because taxi rates were fairly pricey in this mostly rural area, we limited our explorations to what we could reach on foot. First we visited a hillside complex, l’Abri Pataud, that had been explored from the 1950’s through the 1970’s by a team led by Harvard professor H.L. Movius. Due to periodic freeze/thaw erosion and to the situation and geology of the site, multiple levels of tools and remains were found dating from about 35,000 to about 20,000 years ago, encompassing both an interglacial warm period and an ice age. The earliest relics seem to indicate the recurrent presence of nomadic hunter-gatherers who may have used the site as a short-term hunting camp. Later levels indicate somewhat more settled use of the shelter, which became deeper over time.
The following day, we bought tickets to the National Prehistory Museum, a modern cliffside complex that has been expanded several times. Extensive exhibits of stone tools and of skeletons of prehistoric animals and humans were leavened with videos and graphics of likely tool-making techniques during the various periods. In between visits to the area’s prehistory, we sampled some of the crafts and foods of the modern small town, which provides a hearty welcome to school groups, vacationing families, and older tourists like us.
As contemporary humans continue the sometimes difficult twin transitions in global climate and human consciousness, I’m grateful for increased awareness of these long-enduring prehistoric ancestors. Their progress and evolution may seem glacial to us, but they bequeathed to their modern descendants the basic intelligence to adapt their living styles during drastic shifts in their physical environment. They also gave us a less tangible, but no less important inheritance—a sense of gentle humor and whimsy. May we use all these tools well.