Beyond Time: A Journey Back to Prehistory Part 1

Dolmen du Lac d'Aurié - front - near Limogne
Dolmen du Lac d’Aurié – front – near Limogne

Ours is one of the more rural French regions, but transport networks criss-cross the countryside and commercial suburbs mushroom around its historic towns. And yet this part of France is peppered with the works of prehistoric artists and builders. They endure almost in defiance of our modern concerns. So I’m taking a journey back in time in the next two posts via some remarkable sites, the vestiges of prehistoric life in this area.

Early people hunted on the limestone causses (plateaux) of the Quercy and western Rouergue. They followed migrating herds along the rivers and sheltered in the caves, with which the hills are riddled. The hunter-gatherers preferred to avoid thickly-forested areas and favoured the more sparsely-wooded causses – hence the wealth of prehistoric sites.

I’ll start with the more recent sites and end with a startling recent discovery in the next post.

Cave dwelling at Foissac 

The cave network at Foissac, near Figeac, was occupied over thousands of years. The more recent remains date to around 2700 BC in the Bronze Age, when agriculture was developing and people were grouping into settlements. The caves provided housing, burial grounds and a clay quarry. The clay has preserved the captivating imprint of a child’s foot. This part is open to the public.

Much older cave paintings and rock etchings were discovered in another part of the network in 2006. The paintings are around 20,000 years old and include aurochs and bison and non-figurative lines and spots, whose function one can only guess at.

Last year, another priceless treasure emerged from the mud: a 10 cm high figurine sculpted from an auroch or bison bone. The engraved statuette is of a female figure carrying a child or an animal and is between 15,000 and 20,000 years old. Images of human figures or mobile art are rare from this period, when people favoured frescoes of animals.

Imagine the breathless excitement of finding this wonderful piece of early art, untouched for thousands of years.

Dolmens and menhirs

Dolmen du Lac d'Aurié, nr Limogne, Lot - side view, showing the massive capstone
Dolmen du Lac d’Aurié, nr Limogne, Lot – side view, showing the massive capstone, said to weigh 18 tonnes

Dolmens are mysterious, enigmatic structures. I find them haunting. They’re numerous in France and the UK, especially in Brittany and in our region. In fact, Aveyron claims to have the highest number of them in France – around 1,000 dotted across the département. I include here photos of the more accessible dolmens. Others are on private land.

Dolmen appropriated by the Christian faith
Dolmen near Saint-Amans, Tarn-et-Garonne, appropriated by the Christian faith

Dolmens were constructed between around 7000 BC and 3000 BC and often occupy a prominent position on a mound. They consist of enormous slabs of flat stone, capstones, perched on smaller upright stones. Some may have been covered with soil, which has since eroded away.

One of 15 Dolmens around Septfonds
One of 15 Dolmens around Septfonds, Tarn-et-Garonne

No one quite knows what these distinctive monuments were for. The traditional view is that they were burial chambers. However, there’s now a suggestion that they might subsequently have been used for burials but had a broader initial function as religious places. Other explanations range from the sensible to the downright daft (constructed by superior beings from outer space…).

Whatever their function, they are astonishing feats of engineering. Imagine transporting and hoisting massive blocks of stone weighing tons without modern equipment. Prehistoric humans must have had a powerful motivation to do that.

Dolmen near Vaour, Tarn
Dolmen near Vaour, Tarn

Aveyron also boasts a large number of menhirs, standing stones, some of which represent stylised male or female figures. The Musée Fenaille in Rodez has an important collection of these statues, which were sculpted on all sides, not just the front. They include “La Dame de Saint-Sernin”, which you can see here. The sculpted menhir-statues date back to about 3,000 BC.

There’s so much about our prehistoric forebears’ lives that is shrouded in mystery. Next time, I’ll look at cave paintings, their most spectacular form of expression. I’ll also explore a remarkable local discovery about Neanderthal man.

You might also like:

Truffles Tomorrow
A Village on the Causse – Varaire
Prehistoric Corsica: the Remarkable Site at Filitosa

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  1. Enigmatic they are … the how’s and why’s and what for’s pepper any passing of anything prehistoric. I shall very much look forward to the second post on cave art …. I find it amazing enough that a church can retain it’s original frescos let alone a cave house a painting from all those aeons ago and so moving that even at our dawn, humans were expressing their creativity alongside their survival needs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What our ancestors were capable of never ceases to amaze me, especially given the survival imperative. But it seems that the artists may have occupied a special place in society and that allowed them the time to be creative. Part 2 is published now, with some photos of cave art (not my photos, alas).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, such a relief to read your post away from the horrible daily news at the moment. We have spotted several dolmens when walking on the causse and i remember a visit with our village’s local history group to a menhir and dolmen near livernon. I look forward to your second post! A bientot

    Liked by 1 person

    • I tend to avoid current events and politics everywhere on social media – nothing like airing any views to get the green ink brigade going! Our area is absolutely stuffed full of dolmens. They just sit there quietly, as they have for thousands of years, while modern life goes on around them. I wonder if any of our present-day monuments will be so durable?


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