Les Combarelles Cave (12,000 BCE)
For the world's earliest rock paintings
One of the greatest repositories of prehistoric art, containing more than 600 rock engravings dating back to the era of Magdalenian art, the cave of Les Combarelles lies near the village Les Eyzies de Tayac in the French Dordogne. Most of its parietal art features engraved drawings of animals - of which the best-known is the "Drinking Reindeer" (Fig 2.) although there are also a number of humans depicted as well as numerous indistinct anthropomorphic figures. In addition there are some abstract signs, one hand stencil, a few black drawings and some cupules. The region is especially rich in sites containing a variety of cave art: neighbouring caves include Abri du Poisson (whose art dates to 23,000 BCE); Abri de Laussel (23,000); Abri de la Madeleine (20,000); Abri Pataud (18,000); Lascaux Cave (17,000); Rouffignac Cave (14,000-12,000); Font de Gaume (14,000); and Cap Blanc rock shelter (c.13,000). For more about the chronology of Franco-Cantabrian cave art, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
Les Combarelles Cave is located on the left bank of the Beune River, about 2 kilometres from Les Eyzies de Tayac in the direction of Sarlat. It actually consists of two caves - "Les Combarelles I" and the much smaller "Les Combarelles II" - which share a single wide entrance. "Les Combarelles I", which is open to the public, has been owned by the State since its discovery and is classified as an historic monument. "Les Combarelles II" is closed to the public. Henceforth, all references are to "Les Combarelles I".
The cave entrance was excavated by Emile Riviere in 1892 but the rock art was first discovered in 1901 by the owner Mr. Berniche. At the time, it was a narrow winding gallery, about 235 metres (800 feet) in length, with no side passages. Some parts were extremely narrow and could only be traversed on hands and knees. Today, it is still no more than 1 metre wide, and never exceeds 2 metres in height, although many concretions have been removed and floors lowered to improve access.
After its initial discovery, the large assortment of petroglyphs were studied and copied by archeologists and prehistorians Henri Breuil (1877-1961), Louis Capitain (1854-1929) and Denis Peyrony (1869-1954), who in 1924 published a joint monograph. Together with the artworks of Font-de-Gaume Cave, discovered a short while afterwards, and those of La Mouthe, known since 1895, the Paleolithic art at Les Combarelles convinced scientists that Magdalenian man posessesed real artistic and cultural ability. Much later, around 1978, Claude Barriere resumed research at the cave eventually publishing his own monograph on the subject. (For information about another Late Magdalenian sanctuary, see the spectacular Niaux Cave Paintings.)
The first engravings are found about 70 metres into the cave, although the first clear figures don't appear until the 160-metre mark. Thereafter, the narrow passageway is decorated with engravings on both sides until the end. (See Fig 3. and Fig 4.) Many are grouped in separate panels. Drawn over a period of about two millennia (12,000-10,000 BCE) many are superimposed one on top of another, making it hard to disentangle the engraved lines and see which limb belongs to what body. Some of the engravings are fairly deeply incised (up to 6 mm), and some of the outlines are enhanced with a stroke of black manganese dioxide. The carving technique used is identical to that used in ivory carvings from the Magdalenian period, and the style is entirely naturalistic - it seems that the animals have been engraved exactly as the artists of the time saw them. (Note: this is a complete contrast from the anthropomorphic figures which are entirely schematic.) Many images, however, are overlaid with a coating of calcite which can hide them completely from sight - one reason why new figures are continually being discovered.
On average, the engraved images measure between 25 centimetres and 1 metre in length. Animals featured include horses, bison, aurochs, cattle, bears, reindeer, mammoths, ibex, antelopes, cave lions, rhinos, plus the odd snake, fox and fish. In all, over 600 images have so far been discovered, including about 300 identifiable animals, 52 anthropomorphs, a smaller number of abstract signs (tectiforms), and half a dozen sexual symbols, making Les Combarelles one of the major sanctuaries of Magdalenian art.
The best-known images at Les Combarelles include: "The Drinking Reindeer", the "Lion with a Pebble for an Eye" (see Fig 1.), a mammoth with a curled trunk, some bizarre human-like figures including the "Seated Man", as well as groups of stylized women - sometimes without a head or arms, or even breasts, but invariably with exaggerated buttocks.
Two groups of animals are also noteworthy. First, a group of 14 mammoths, including young ones covered with hair, and older ones with less hair. All are depicted with great accuracy and include considerable detail. Second, a group of 4 horses with markings that clearly identify them as domesticated. Two have some type of covering on their back, while the other two have markings indicating some kind of bridle.
For other important centres of Stone Age art in France, see these articles:
Castanet Engravings (35,000 BCE)
Cave Hand Stencils (25,000 BCE)
Cave Engravings (25,000 BCE)
Cave (25,000 BCE)
du Poisson Cave (c.23,000 BCE)
Cave (c.23,000 BCE)
Cave (17,000 BCE)
Cave (13,000 BCE)
For more about French cave art in the Dordogne, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE