The Caves of Périgord: Roque de Saint Christophe

The final cave we got to explore was more of an amusement park than a cave, Le Roque de Saint Christophe. The day we were there several school groups on field trips joined us. There is a restaurant and picnic area out front and a gift shop at the entrance. Cheesy scenes are recreated throughout the overhanging shelter and range from Cro Magnons fighting off a cave bear to Middle-Ages knights in shining armor. Here you can scramble around the cave overhanging and explore with or without a guide. We chose without as we were tired of French tours (Our previous two cave guides were only available in French at the time). It was kind of fun.

It has been said that just by choosing to live in this beautiful location Cro Magnon people demonstrated their extreme intelligence. It is a huge cliff shelter directly above the Vezére River. This site has been continuously inhabited since prehistoric times around 15,000 BC. Cro Magnons gave way to iron age Neolithic agriculturists, who gave way to the Gauls, who gave way to the Romans, who gave way to Middle-Ages kingdoms and Norman invaders, up to present times. Because of its constant use there is little evidence of the earliest people of this area. There is no cave art here as there really aren’t any caves, just overhanging cliffs. People lived here! Burials and religious activities must have taken lace elsewhere. It appears that daily life took place in one area while death and ritual in another. One exception to this rule is found nearby at Abri Cap Blanc, where the cave art is part of the overhanging cliff rather than deep in the cave. But there was also a burial beneath the carvings.

So why are there paintings deep in the caves? Lascaux would have been extremely difficult to enter. The passages in Font-de-Gaume are extremely narrow. Grotte de Rouffignac is several miles long and was a regular home to hibernating bears. None were easy to access. None of these have evidence of human habitation from the Magdalenian period: worked flint, fire pits, or butchered animal remains. Human habitation for these caves is from the Middle Ages when many of the caves in this region were used as shelters for local people seeking refuge from invaders; these people didn’t even notice the cave art. Because of the remote nature of the art most researchers describe these areas as spiritual or religious worship centers. The description seems to match our modern concept of what religion should look like. The dead are buried near these areas. They are richly decorated, candle-lit shelters. There may even be priestly representations. The “unicorn” in Lascaux appears to be a compilation for several animals but has human hind legs. Could this be a priest wearing animal skins and performing some sort of ritual for the people? If these really were places of worship, based upon the quality of work and space inside the cave, Lascaux appears to have been the “Vatican” and other sites as local shrines. All of this is purely speculation based upon our modern interpretations and limited evidence. At minimum it makes for great stories and brings these people to life as humans much like us.

No comments: