The Sistine Chapel of the Prehistoric World

In France’s Dordogne region, guides call the Lascaux Caves the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric world. I thought, “Promotional hyperbole.” But yesterday I climbed into Lascaux II. It’s a painstakingly created, perfect copy of the actual cave, which the public is no longer allowed to visit. After a few minutes, you forget it’s a copy. And I was swept away by its grandeur.

The vast cave looked amazingly like my (very healthy) colonoscopy photograph. Main difference: It was covered with paintings made 17,000 years ago, long before Stonehenge and the pyramids, back when mammoths and saber-toothed cats still roamed the earth. These are not just crude doodles. The painting was a huge and sophisticated project executed by artists supported by an impressive culture — the Magdalenians.

Our guide said, “This was a sacred room. You don’t sleep in a church. They didn’t sleep in their cave. It’s not a random thing, but a careful composition of two herds of bison coming together. They met here, and in symmetry, you see the three main animals: horses, deer and bison. It’s the art of a hunter society, but not of hunters — you don’t see figures of people or the animals they hunted (such as reindeer). The artists must be good, because you cannot change the fresco once you lay it. There are no mistakes evident. There are many, many caves in Southern France and in Northern Spain. And each cave is different…speaking a different language. The symbolism is a different vocabulary. Seventeen thousand years seems very old in our perspective. But remember, humans roamed the earth for 3 million years. Biologically, the Magdalenians were exactly like us. In anthropological time, it was like yesterday.”

It’s strange to find yourself “getting into” Magdalenians. In the museum, filled with original Magdalenian artifacts, I began to feel a connection with these people. Skeletons draped in fine jewelry. Teeth of stag and tiny shells delicately drilled to be strung into necklaces. Barbed spears and fish hooks that would work well today. Finely carved weapons used to sling spears.

Looking at the oil lamps, I could imagine the wonder of wandering under flickering flames that lit the Sistine Chapel of the prehistoric world.


14 Replies to “The Sistine Chapel of the Prehistoric World”

  1. I understand why the public is no longer allowed into the original even though it is disappointing. It’s wonderful to hear that the copy is so artfully done. Too often replicas end up feeling like a Disney World display, glad to hear this one is so good that you forgot it wasn’t the original! Thanks for more interesting info!

  2. Absolutely Fascinating

    Thank you for an extremely interesting description to an obviously very unique site
    that won’t be on the tour bus route.

    I was reading your book “Postcards from Europe” and you mentioned a certain magazine used by tour bus companies. I found a copy online and could see that it is geared to large bus tours.

    I am not criticizing the magazine or the tour companies. However, I do note your point
    that is a very different way of traveling compared to traveling independently. All my traveling in Europe has been of the independent variety.

    Maybe I’ll take a bus tour in the future to try it out. I enjoy independent travel and getting off the beaten track.

    I have met so many people you’ve mentioned in your books or I’ve seen on your DVDs
    in my travels such as Fatima in Bacharach who was very nice and was as energetic as you mentioned. She treated me well and it is really fun meeting someone that through your books you feel like you already know.

    Looking forward to your next interesting BLOG entry.

    Thanks Rick

  3. I have been enjoying your BLOG entries. My husband and I will be staying in the Dordogne for 4 days this summer and a visit to LascauxII is on our list. We are also looking forward to seeing the area by canoe. I have just about finished booking all of the hotels for our two week trip and your guide book along with the ‘net’ have been invaluable.

    Thank you and “keep on travelling” as many of us are enjoying your experiences as well.

  4. I have enjoyed reading the Blog on a regular basis. I have been a fan of yours for some time.

    I enjoy hearing about some of the places I got to visit while I was stationed in Europe while in the U.S. Army, and how some of them have changed since the mid 80’s & early 90’s.

    While I don’t know if this is still the case, Those of us in the military use to be able to get EuroRail passes for up to 30 days at a pretty resonable rate at the USO and at the AFES (PX) travel offices in Europe.

    Do you know, or can you find out if this is still true? It would be good info for those still stationed over there.

    Thank You Rick for you continuing search in ways to help us Europian travelers!

  5. Just wanted to let you know how VERY much I enjoy reading of your travels and adventures. Ive been following you since 1990 through books and TV, and can think of no one else who can deliver so much information, fact and fun in one place. Many thanks from a true fan and friend.

  6. In college my favorite professor taught us all about the Lascaux caves, so when I went to the Dordogne that was my only must see and my parents indulged my request
    I was concerned about it being a duplicate but you honestly do not even notice. The guides are amazing and it is one of my favorite sites. For me it was even better than the Sistine Chapel since they limit the number of visitors in a group.
    Thanks for mentally bringing me back there Rick!

  7. Hey Rick!
    Is that new picture you just put up the picture of the cave or your healthy colonoscopy picture? LOL!
    LISA P.

  8. Lisa

    That is very funny!!!

    Good sense of humour which I’m sure
    Rick will appreciate.

    He HAS an excellent sense of humour ( look at his duck story…:)))

  9. Rich,

    I am surprised you didn’t mention the Grotte de Font de Gaume in Les Eysies which is not far from the Lascaux Caves. Font de Gaume is the only cave in Europe with polychrome prehistoric paintings (the real thing–not replicas) still open to the public. Because of the recommendation in your book on France, we visited it last Fall and were truly impressed. Fewer than 200 people may enter each day, so, as your book suggests, we called to make our reservation well in advance. We spent two nights at the family-owned Auberge Veyret nearby, also in your book, and thought it one of the nicest places we stayed at and one of the best bargains on the trip. The breakfasts and dinners are fantastic!

  10. On our first visit in the area of les Eyzies, France, we took pictures of houses that were built under huge convex cliffs with a million tons of stone above the roof. The cliff formed one-half of the roof, and chimney smoke blackened the cliff above each house, making inky streaks on the white stone. We tried to find this scene during our next visit to les Eyzies, but despite my drawings, shown to people in a cafe, no one recognized the spot. Next time we must take the photos with us, they give better detail than my pencil scratches on a restaurant napkin. (1988)

    Houses under a cliff

  11. Grotte de Peche Merle, also mentioned by Rick, is another cave system well worth seeing – especially if you are visiting St. Cirq Lapopie, one of the most beautiful villages we have seen anywhere in Europe. The rock formations alone, including huge disks and small “pearls” are beautiful, but there is a wide variety of original cave art dating to 20,000 or more years ago. There are equally ancient human footprints preserved in the sand in one of the caverns. The atmosphere is truly cathedral-like. A bonus for us was one of our most memorable travel experiences. Our guide through the caverns, who spoke only French, took a liking to my wife, Barb, and made a habit of calling her to the front of the line or keeping her for extra commentary while everyone else moved on. By the end of the tour, everyone else in our group, only one of whom spoke English, had figured out what was going on and were having a good laugh.

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