We’re staying in a beautiful town which has been here since the middle ages. Sarlat was much used and abused during the 100 Years War. The shifting lines of the French and English troops lead by Francois I, The Salamander, and Richard I, The Lionheart, tore up these small villages around here for a long, long time. The castles and towers remain to tell their stories of those times.
However, there are other stories hidden under ground and high above that show us much about the people who made their homes in this area 25,000 years ago. Sarlat is at the center of numerous grottes (the French word for caves) that were inhabited by Cro Magnon to shelter, and to express their feelings, desires, and visions. Those who lived in the cliffs were safe, relatively warm, and able to work and eat safely. Those who went into the caves may have gone for other purposes.
The National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies has informative and beautiful displays as well as videos which show flint makers at work, how the tools were made and used in the preparation of animal skins, and numerous collections of tools in various sizes and applicability. The museum also has a full size elk skeleton. It is far larger our modern elk. The enormity of the animal makes you really appreciate the bravery of the hunter armed with a spear on a wooden shaft and flint tipped arrows and clubs who went after the elk and other enormous animals. They used their kill for food, skins, horns, and hooves. The people of those times, based on the skeletons discovered at Les Eyzies (14) were much shorter than we are making it much harder to have a successful hunt. Here, also is the first example of underground burial–25,000 years ago give or take one or two!
Another day we drove to Pech-Merle in the Lot River valley where a grotte was discovered in the 1920’s. This cave had been in use 25,000 years ago and then something happened which sealed it– a landslide, or earthquake– for 10,000 years until in was rediscovered. When I entered the cave with about 20 people and a guide, my first thought was cathedral. The stalagmites and other limestone and water-formed accretions have constructed a magical series of “rooms” with winding corridors, and high “ceilings.” The wall color varies from pearlescent cream to soft rose and deeper colors or orange and brown. Imagine these men and women holding torches as they entered the cave. The torch light would flicker and move along this strange landscape so very different from the one outside that they knew so well. No wonder these walls became the canvas for their paintings and engravings.
This work made by human hands in times so distant I find it hard to grasp are remarkable and beautiful. (No cameras are allowed inside. These images are postcards.) I looked at the drawings and paintings and felt I was seeing into the minds of individuals who have left us something to read. Something about their world, their mysteries, their hopes and dreams. The placement of hands around certain animal images is particularly moving: the tangible proof of presence. The numinous quality of this experience is impossible to escape–for them and for us.
Back again at Les Eyzies we marveled at the strength and dexterity it took to scale the steep overhanging cliff to reach the safety of the caves. We saw the current village snuggled against those same cliff walls. You realize how old this all is; how long people have lived here. And then you see the enormous statue of the early man gazing out at his domain; all that he sees was once his. His strength and his imagination started the long walk to our modern world. He seems sad, wistful but proud and determined. I admired him greatly.