It was almost too much to comprehend. In crossing a space of less than one thousand meters, we had crossed nearly 20,000 years of time.
It happened late one afternoon in the small but lovely Beune Valley, near the village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, during our tour through the heart of Cro-Magnon country, in southwest France. We had climbed to the tippy top of a medieval castle on the southern side of the valley, which gave us a commanding view of a landscape that had been more-or-less continuously occupied by Homo sapiens for over 45,000 years, and by Homo Neanderthalensis for more than 300,000 years before that (until we sapiens drove them out). That’s a helluva lot of history for one small valley – and potentially a lot of lessons to be learned, I thought as we surveyed the scene from the medieval heights.
The area had been a refuge for humans during the intense cold periods that gripped Europe off-and-on during the Ice Ages and the numerous rock shelters in the region became desirable habitation sites, including one just a short distance across the valley from where we stood. It’s called Abri du Cap Blanc and it features an exceptional frieze of life-size horses and other animals sculpted into the back wall of the shelter. Dating to 18,000 years BP (before present), the frieze remains one of the great masterpieces of monumental art of the Cro-Magnon period – a period that began with the arrival of Homo sapiens to the area circa 45,000 years BP and ended around 10,000 years BP.
Most art associated with the Cro-Magnon are the famous cave paintings of wild animals found at Lascaux and other sites, or the ‘mobile’ art carved into elk and mammoth antlers and carried with individuals as they traveled across the chilly landscape in search of something to kill and eat. Rarely did these hunters take time to laboriously carve images of animals into the walls of their temporary shelters (using only flint tools), but at Abri du Cap Blanc – for an unknown reason – someone did, luckily for us today.
We visited the shelter earlier in the afternoon, joining a small group of fellow tourists. A national monument, the rock opening is protected by a wooden shelter attached to a visitor center and thus kept in permanent darkness, except for the lights that our guide turned on and off for effect. I lingered behind the group as we made our way along the frieze, which includes bison and deer along with the famous horses. I couldn’t understand what was being said anyway. For some reason, the French don’t make much of an effort to accommodate English-speakers (the guides rarely spoke English anywhere we went), so I hung back to absorb the ambience of the shelter and gaze at the unusual artwork in relative quiet. What motivated the artist or artists to carve these images? It wasn’t purely an artistic impulse. That’s because there is a consistency to Cro-Magnon imagery over the span of 20,000 years that indicates it served a religious or social function as well. Wild horses, for example, were very popular. Why? And why here? No one really knows.
Here’s an image of the most famous horse sculpture at Cap Blanc, plus a reproduction of a painting in the visitor center:
By medieval times, twenty thousand years later, the valley was still occupied by humans, who were still earning a living from the land – as they are today. After the departure of the Cro-Magnon, the valley became the site of scattered villages as the Agricultural Revolution took off. Next, marauding tribal bands raided and sacked the region for centuries, until the arrival of Ceasar’s legions brought some measure of stability and peace. With the fall of the Roman Empire, the area endured another round of political and economic mayhem until the feudal system solidified, represented by the medieval tower we had climbed. Later, of course, came the tourists.
Gen and I stood at the tippy top of the castle for a long time. We had come a long way to stand there, at considerable expense, so we were determined to soak up every ounce of ambience we could – until our son impatiently signaled that the castle was about to close. It was more than time and money, however. Or the view. The idea of the landscape fascinated us. The humanness of this place was as old as the art we had been seeing in the caves. It wasn’t as attractive as, say, a woolly mammoth on a wall, but in many ways it was just as impressive. We stood in silence, just looking.
Somehow, humans hadn’t messed up this land – at least not the way we’ve messed up countless other landscapes over the centuries all over the world. It looked intact. Maybe we were being fooled – a guidebook said that many 19th-century farms in the area had been allowed to return to a ‘natural’ forest condition, no doubt for touristic effect. Still, it was inspiring to see a place that had no obvious signs of hard use, despite its incomparable length of human activity. There were lessons here about our behavior, both ancient and modern, I was certain. What were they? Would they be useful for the future?
I wondered for a reason: it’s looking more and more like we’re heading into another period of tumultuous times, if news headlines are any indication. The rapid disintegration of the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean this summer, for example, apparently portends all sorts of trouble ahead climate-wise. How will we respond? When Cro-Magnons walked out the Beune Valley for the last time, the planet was in the process of trading the frigid stresses of the Ice Age for the warm stability of the Holocene. That stability is likely ending, say scientists. We aren’t returning to the Ice Ages, however – we’re moving into something else altogether. Something hotter. What did that mean? Standing at the tippy top of the castle, I thought: “We’re going to need our inner Cro-Magnon, I bet.”
And maybe some pointed sticks.
Here’s our view of the valley: