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Prehistory in France

March 31, 1985|ELIZABETH VENANT | Times Staff Writer

Between 40,000 and 10,000 years before Christ, Cro-Magnon man roamed the game-rich valleys and river banks of the Dordogne Valley, spearing deer, bison and rabbits, and living in rock shelters, lips of protective granite cliffs.

This was not the short, apelike man with the prognathous jaw. That hairy, undapper race was the far earlier and separate Neanderthal man. The Cro-Magnons were like us; according to rare, small museum sculptures, some of them were like the very best of us: the women with fine-boned faces, the men standing an average 5 feet 9 inches, with regular handsome features.

They wore ivory necklaces and carried decorative arms. They buried their dead under stone markers and laid them in the fetal position of slumber. They expressed tenderness and a sense of humor. And 30,000 years before the Greeks or Egyptians, they created Europe's first great works of art.

Paleolithic (literally "old stone") art flourished in the cliff-side caves of the Dordogne Department, which spreads over verdant valleys and forests east of Bordeaux.

Off Beaten Track

A corner of France that has remained off the beaten track, Dordogne is in the ancient province of Perigord and is world-renowned for its delectable specialties of foie gras and truffles. Dordogne also boasts 1,200 chateaux, graceful Romanesque churches and picturesque stone towns such as hillside St. Cyprien, the beautifully restored old town of Sarlat, and Monpazier, a spectacular example of a fortified commune, or bastide.

There is the pastoral Dordogne River and its tributary, the Vezere, for lazy sunning and canoeing, wildflower fields that beckon to picnickers, country roads and woodlands for long, tranquil walks.

But the great drama of the Dordogne takes place in the caves that cradled an early civilization and served as shrines for its art. This is not tourism with mass appeal, but is a remarkably rewarding look at a part of prehistory, which, as it becomes familiar, hardly seems so far off.

'Capital of Prehistory'

An ideal base to visit the prehistoric region is Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, a little town between the cliffs, appropriately dubbed "the capital of prehistory." It was there, in a hole beneath an ivy-covered rock, that a skeleton of Cro-Magnon (literally "big hole") man was discovered in 1868.

There is also the National Museum of Prehistory, where skeletons, carved figures and artifacts are on display. And Les Eyzies is near the important sites, a few of them within walking distance.

Below is a list of some of the most spectacular sites. (Guided tours are in French only.)

La Roque Saint-Christophe. Carved out by millenia of rushing river waters, this five-story stone habitat looms like a prehistoric skyscraper 260 feet over peaceful valley pasturelands. It is one of about 20 cliff-dwelling clusters that dot the Vezere banks near Les Eyzies. The most famous is the Madeleine Deposit (Gisement de la Madeleine), which gave its name to the most recent Paleolithic age, the Magdalenian era of 12,000-9,000 BC. The Roque Saint-Christophe, however, is somewhat more grandiose.

Its first inhabitants, who lived between about 70,000 and 100,000 years before Christ, were Neanderthal men, named for the Neander Valley near Duesseldorf, Germany, where their remains were discovered. In a shallow cave shelter, the Musee Grevin, Paris' wax museum, has erected a facsimile of the man of the house defending wife and child against an intruding 13-foot-tall bear.

Cro-Magnon man's life was little more luxurious, although there was an abundance of smaller, more easily hunted game, and the fish-rich Vezere meandered below. Except for using fire, the Cro-Magnon family lived in their "house" as they found it. It is therefore all the more astounding to discover the delicacy of their art.

The decorated caves--La Mouthe, Les Combarelles, Font-de-Gaume, Rouffignac--testify to the art of hunters who stalked the mammoths, reindeer and wild horses that populated high Paleolithic Europe. But these are no crude hunter's drawings. A guide holds a lamp up to a rugged stone wall and you're face to face with a laughing donkey. A female bison kneels before a male who licks her forehead. Traces of a woman's graceful leg appear seemingly from nowhere.

Archeologists know little about the meaning of these representations, but they may have religious signification and were possibly used in rituals of fecundity.

The artists made Herculean efforts to practice their art. For although they lived in the shallow cave mouths, they often painted deep inside them. Carrying oil lamps, they crawled down narrow passageways, traveling deeper and deeper to find fresh "canvases." The temperature of their ateliers (workshops) was 54 degrees, the humidity 99%.

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