This evening we had a fabulous duck dinner. On the menu: an appetizer that included duck foie gras, preserved duck in a filo pastry, slices of smoked duck, and a duck-based Crème Brule; a main course of duck three-ways (a rolled fillet with prunes, a stuffed breast, and slices of leg meat in filo), and iced soufflé with caramelized pear (no duck) for dessert.
This delicious meal, plus our visits to Rouffignac Cave and Castel Merle, got me thinking about life as a Cro-Magnon in the Paleolithic — specifically, how to survive in southern France during the last Ice Age.

It’s safe to say that we were all blown away by the artwork at Rouffignac, particularly in the Great Ceiling portion of the cave. We reached it by riding a small, slow-moving electric train, which alleviates the need to walk and reduces the environmental impact of visitors. After several stops, the train slowed to a halt under the astonishing Great Ceiling — an oval some 30 feet in diameter containing 66 animals, many sketched in exquisite detail. Even though we’ve now seen enough cave art to know how it was done, there’s no firm answer as to why.

While Rouffignac shed light on some artistic aspects of Cro-Magnon life, our visit to Castel Merle took us into survival mode. This site has 10 rock shelters occupied first by Neanderthals and then by Cro-Magnon some 35,000 years ago. While one of the rock shelters is open to visitors, the highlight was three demonstrations by Jacob (the husband of the owner) of Cro-Magnon daily life: spear throwing, knapping, and fire lighting.

The spear thrower is a wooden shaft with a spur at one end that supports and propels the back end of the spear. The thrower acts as an extension of the hunter’s throwing arm, imparting more force to the spear (causing it to fly farther and faster) than if the spear was simply thrown by hand. Using the thrower to hurl the spear is not as easy as it looks.

Knapping is the art of striking one stone with another to create a shape. In the demonstration (see the images above), a chunk of flint is struck by a harder rock. This causes flakes to peal off the flint, and eventually the end result is a flint tool — a cutting blade, a spear point, or perhaps a large scraper. By the end of the demonstration Jacob was a little bloodied because he’d nicked a finger, but during the course of 15 minutes he’d made a number of serviceable tools.

Finally, he showed us how to strike two rocks together (one containing iron) to create a spark that could be nurtured into flame. It was a very impressive series of demonstrations, during which I realized that the only way we’d get dinner this evening was at a restaurant. If we were suddenly forced to spear a fowl (duck or otherwise), skin it with a stone tool of our own creation, and build a fire from scratch to cook it, I doubt we’d survive very long in Cro-Magnon’s world.

Written by: Paul Deans – TQ Editor

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