Pech-Merle Cave Paintings
Prehistoric Animal Pictures: Stone Age Rock Art History, Drawings of Dappled Horses.

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"Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle" dating
from about 25,000 BCE. An exemplar of
Gravettian art (25,000-20,000 BCE)

Pech-Merle Cave Paintings (c.25,000 BCE)

The prehistoric cave of Pech-Merle, situated some 20 miles east of Cahors, at Cabrerets in the Quercy region of France, contains some of the oldest and most spectacular examples of Upper Paleolithic cave painting in the world. Dated from 25,000 BCE, Pech-Merle (along with the similar aged Cosquer cave) is the second oldest site of this type of prehistoric art after the Chauvet Cave Paintings (30,000 BCE). It is particularly famous for its polychrome picture known as "The Dappled Horses of Pech-Merle", along with accompanying pictographs - in this case hand stencils.

To compare the antiquity of Pech-Merle with other archeological sites, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

For a photo of the first sculpture
of a human figure, see:
Venus of Hohle Fels.


The cave was first discovered in 1922 by teenagers H. David and A. Duterte, but the section containing the famous rock art (the Combel Gallery) wasn't uncovered until 1949, when a passage was cleared through the rubble blocking it. The latter, fortuitously, had preserved the cave's contents in an airtight condition. The cave is spacious and dry, and contains about 1,300 metres of galleries, with average dimensions of about 10 metres in width and 5-10 metres in height. In addition to its unique Stone Age art, it contains footprints, tools, food remains, and other signs of human habitation, although this is thought to have been intermittent and insubstantial.

See also: Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Artworks.

Dates of Cave Paintings at Pech-Merle

The cave's parietal art has been assigned to three phases: the first two occurred between 25,000 and 15,000 BCE during the Gravettian or Upper Périgordian period, and the third around 13,000 BCE, during the later Magdalenian period which gave birth to the rock painting at Altamira in Cantabria, Spain. The great masterpiece of the earliest phase is the dappled horse panel - four metres in length, featuring two horses back-to-back and partly superimposed, as well as numerous red and black hand stencils and other abstract signs and symbols. It is radio carbon dated to roughly 25,000 BCE. This period of activity also features the series of dots, circles, hand stencils and crude finger drawing on the large "hieroglyph ceiling." (For a comparison, see El Castillo cave paintings, dating to 39,000 BCE, which include a number of hand stencils and abstract symbols.)

The second phase includes 40 black outline drawings - notably the two dozen or so grouped on the cave's famous "Black Frieze" or Chapel of the Mammoths. This work features images of 11 mammoths, 5 bison, 4 horses, 4 aurochs and a quantity of abstract markings. The final phase consists of a number of prehistoric engravings, including a famous figure of a bear.

The Cave Art at Pech-Merle

In total, there are about 576 separate images at Pech-Merle. Exceptionally - and unlike Chauvet, Lascaux and Altamira, there is more abstract geometric art here, than animal pictures. Only about 60 animal images have been identified: 21 mammoth, 12 horses, 7 bison, 6 aurochs, 6 reindeer, 2 ibex 1 lion, 1 bear and 3 indecipherable ones. However, again unlike other famous cave murals of Paleolithic times, there are 12 images of humans - 8 relatively naturalistic, and 4 schematic.

For details of the colour pigments in Stone Age cave painting, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.

• For the oldest art, see: Bhimbetka Petroglyphs (Cupules)
• See also: Oldest Art Ever
• For more about prehistoric sculpture, see: Venus Figurines
• For the origins of painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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