On our Expressions of the Past tour, we’ve been exploring cave art for a number of days. Each cave, and each artistic endeavor, has been mesmerizing in its own way. But what of the artists themselves? Today, we visited one of their homes.

The Grotte de la Vache is a small rock shelter and cave located in the Pyrenees in southern France. It’s not a popular tourist destination, partly because it’s not that easy to reach. Across the valley from the shelter is the much better known (and well visited) Cave of Niaux, famous for its extremely detailed paintings of prehistoric bison and horses.

Standing at the shelter entrance looking across the valley toward Niaux, we tried to imagine the scene 12,000 years ago: glaciers on the mountaintops, alpine grasslands instead of forests (it was too cold for trees), and small herds of ibex, reindeer, and aurochs passing by on their way to and from the high plains. The shelter location is ideal. It faces south for sunlight and warmth, there’s a river nearby, and it’s a good place for hunters because the valley exit for the animals is very narrow.

There were never large tribes living here, just a few people — perhaps two or three nuclear families. Inside the shelter, in an opening just off the main cave, are numerous small fireplace pits. Each fireplace seems to have been used by a different family — one family, one fire. These were small fires, possibly for cooking small game rather than for communal or social gatherings. Since there were few trees in the area, bones were burned in these fires — the result is smoke and smell, but they do burn.

And there were plenty of bones to burn. Only part of the cave has been excavated, but so far more than 800,000 broken bones have been found — broken to extract the very useful bone marrow. Many of them came from reindeer (bones from as many as 150 animals have been identified). There are also fish vertebrae (mostly salmon), and many, many bones from rabbits and small birds.

A variety of tools are also present including spear points, barbed harpoons, and needles made from the antlers. Also found: what appear to be musical instruments, including a flute. But the artistic highlight of this shelter is the carvings on some bones and antlers. These people were excellent artists, carving shapes of fish, bear, lion and other animals on the front and back of various bones. We don’t know if there was a practical use for these artifacts — I wonder if they were teaching tools; what they created is, after all, portable art.

Music, painting, sculpture, clothing. Essentially, the story of this shelter and cave is a story of people who were reasonably well off by the standards of the day. They were well fed and not struggling to survive. Starving people constantly look for food. The inhabitants of La Vache had time to paint, draw, carve, and play music — they had time for the arts.

But there are no cave paintings here. Those are found across the valley in Niaux Cave. And in Niaux, there are no signs that it was ever inhabited. By dating the bones found in La Vache and the charcoal drawings on the walls in Niaux, an age of roughly 13,000 years (give or take) has been determined — for both sites. It’s not conclusive, of course, but it’s hard not to believe that the artists who created the paintings in Niaux lived just across the valley in the Grotte de la Vache.

Written by: Paul Deans – TQ Editor

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