Stone Memories

In a cave in southern France, tracing the origins of art

By / September 2013

Our hands were almost the same size. Both were small and slender, and our unusually delicate pinky fingers were strikingly similar, too. It almost seemed as if the creases in our palms were mirror images. But a metal wire and a sign declaring “Ne touchez pas” prevented me from aligning my fingertips with the red and black handprint on the cave wall in Grotte de Font-de-Gaume. Safely behind the barrier, faintly illuminated by the lights bordering the ground, my right hand hovered two feet away from the ancient imprint.

Nestled in Dordogne, in the southeastern province of France, Grotte de Font-de-Gaume is one of eight French caves known to contain prehistoric paintings and etchings. Since the early 20th century, amateurs and experts alike have located several caverns in various regions of France bearing artistic evidence of early human life. Grotte de Font-de-Gaume, the first of the caves, was discovered by a schoolteacher named Dennis Peyrony in 1901.

Aside from the Cosquer Cave in Marseille, a chamber accessible by scuba diving nearly 40 feet below the Mediterranean Sea, Font-de-Gaume is the only of the prehistoric cave galleries in France still open to the public. Prompted by concerns of preservation, the six other caves have been closed to visitors. In some locations, such as Lascaux, identical replicas of the caves have been created, a savvy way to draw visitors and keep visitors at bay. The concealment of the other caves has only intensified interest in Font-de-Gaume.

In 2001, in a rented red Peugeot with an uncooperative stick shift, I traveled to Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil with my history-buff and non-French speaking mother, Julie. Far from the crowded tour buses and overpriced souvenir shops of traditional French tourist destinations, the visitors’ center of Font-de-Gaume sits patiently on the side of an unevenly paved road 340 miles from Paris. With faded green paint, single-paned windows, and moss-covered shingles, the visitors’ center looked strangely welcoming, like a cozy family cabin that has been neither changed nor modernized throughout the generations.

The volunteers who staff the center and its gift shop, retired locals with connections to the region, are much the same. In rapid but polite French, two older women welcomed my mother and me into the building, visibly excited to have visitors break up the cold silence of January, one of the slowest tourist months of the year. Yet, even during peak tourism seasons, visits to the cave are limited to 80 people per day and guided only in French, giving the building and surrounding village a feeling of perpetual vacancy.

The women asked if we had any trouble finding the place or locating a parking spot for our rental. Quietly hiding the well-worn freeway map in my purse, I insisted there was no problem and we were eager to start the tour. With the help of a white-haired woman in a burgundy knit sweater, my mother and I would witness the last original paintings on view to general audiences and curious travelers.

In addition to limiting the number of daily visitors, the tours themselves are kept to a brisk thirty minutes to reduce the amount of human exposure. Changes in temperature brought on by warm bodies, moist breathing in small spaces, and bright lights can endanger the paintings. Our guide, Georgette, informed us that further instructions on how to safely navigate the paintings would come at the mouth of the cave.

Ten minutes later, feeling out of breath—both by the steep incline of the path, and by the ensuing view of the French countryside—our group of three arrived in front of two natural entrances into the mountainside. On the left, a large semi-circular hole as wide as two doorways led to a shallow grotto flanked by small metal lockers, where bags and cameras were stored to prevent accidental grazing or scratching of the cave walls. Opposite the storage space was a tarnished metal gate, bolted shut by an oversized and equally rusty padlock. The thick bars and layers of spider webs partially concealed a narrow crack of darkness in the bulky rock surface. This was our door into the cave.

I suddenly felt my hand embraced in the warm touch of my mother’s grasp. Whether we held hands in excited anticipation of the paintings, or fear of the frightening cave entrance, I cannot be sure. But together we crossed the threshold into chilly darkness.

Guided by Georgette’s voice, we shuffled slowly through the first few meters of the cave, forced into a single-file line by the tall, constricting walls. “Arrêtez ici, s’il vous plait,” said the tour guide, coming to an abrupt halt. In the abject silence of the cave, I could hear her weathered hands grazing against part of the rock face, feeling and searching. With a slight click, a row of miniature silver lanterns lit the dirt path and three pairs of feet. All six of our sneakers shuffled and turned in circles to take in our now-visible surroundings. The dim light faintly illuminated two rows of metal cords, delineating the narrow conduit running deeper into the cave.

My feet stopped shuffling. My mouth opened into a gasp at the sight of a giant painting of a buffalo. In the darkness it almost looked as if the creature were standing on Julie’s shoulder. Prompted by my reaction, she turned, dropping the flesh floor out from under the enormous mammal. Now, it was simply drifting on the taupe-colored rock, like a dream bubble floating above a sleeping infant in a children’s book. The beast was a memory etched into stone. And into my mind.

The exaggerated curvature of the buffalo’s broad back made it intimidating, even in two dimensions. A pair of pointed horns jutted out from its stooped head, as if in preparation for a row with a competing male. Various shades of brown—auburn, russet, chocolate, and coffee—merged to create a convincingly furry textile. Even the fissures in the rock face added to its realism, giving it movement and dimension.

Oblivious to time, and unconscious of our guide’s detailed historical accounts of archeological findings, I continued down the dirt path, anxious to glimpse dozens more paintings of buffalo, deer, and smaller creatures. I became lost in an ancient zoo of rock and paint. Animals dominated the dim cavern. They jumped, ran, dashed, darted, scampered, and charged on either side of me, drawing on my base instincts and making me feel—just for a moment—like part of the pack.

Until I saw the hand. It was barely perceptible amid the storming herds of wild things. At the end of the trail, veiled in shadows cast by the pathway lanterns, a single handprint marked the lower half of the rock wall. One handprint among dozens of hoofprints and hides. It seemed out of place, unreal, as if a modern-day vandal had put it there with Sherwin-Williams. Yet the layers of calcite, accumulated over thousands of years, told a different story. The hand belonged to someone. Who?

The print was indiscriminately male and female. It seemed neither young nor old. I held my hand up to it. The hand could easily have been mine, or my mother’s, or Georgette’s. The paintings of animals up the stone path had about them a mythic quality. But the handprint, tucked into the farthest corner of the cold, barren cave, snapped me back into reality. People were responsible for all this hidden beauty, and as if to make that clear, one of the artists had reached out and scrawled a signature.

The desire to leave behind a mark, what could be more timeless? What could be more human than that?


Elliott Kennedy lives in Eugene, Oregon.