Prehistoric Dordogne

Prehistoric Dordogne - Bison on a plaque
Bison on a plaque

Prehistoric Dordogne is a collection of basic facts about Southwest France, a region that has been inhabited since the Lower Paleolithic.

Our distant ancestors indeed settled in the natural shelters the Dordogne and Vézère rivers hollowed in the limestone cliffs over the millennia.

They lived, worked, worshiped, painted, died and were buried in the many caves in the Dordogne, Lot, Tarn-et-Garonne and Lot-et-Garonne départements in Périgord and Quercy regions.

They left the marks of their extraordinary and surprising culture on the walls of their caves.

Unsurprisingly, the beautiful and untamed Vézère Valley – La Vallée de l’Homme is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Prehistoric Dordogne – Paleolithic

Most sites of Southwest France date from the Paleolithic era.

The appearance and development of the stone industry mark this first phase of prehistory.

Paleolithic is divided into Lower, Middle and Upper eras.

These eras are subdivided according to the type and level of sophistication of the weapons, tools and various artifacts produced.

Prehistoric Dordogne – Lower Paleolithic 2millionBC to 150,000BC

Abbevillian was named after the Abbeville site in the Somme département.

The flint bifaces were roughly cut by striking two stones together.

Acheulean was named after the discoveries made in Saint-Acheul in the Somme département.

The flint bifaces were better finished and shaped by using a tender striker.

Prehistoric Dordogne – Middle Paleolithic 150,000BC to 40,000BC

Levalloisian: In the Levallois flint-working technique the flints were prepared so that flakes of predetermined shape and size could be obtained.

Neanderthal skull recovered in La Chapelle aux Saints
Neanderthal skull recovered in La Chapelle aux Saints

Mousterian: about 40,000BC and was named after Le Moustier site.

More sophisticated weapons and tools, such as triangular shaped flints spikes and side scrapers or racloirs, were obtained by blunting only on one side with a tender striker like bone or wood.

These phases are associated with Neanderthal men, whose bones were found in 1909 at Le Moustier and in 1957 at Le Régourdou.

The first skeleton was discovered in 1856 in the Neander Valley near Dusseldorf in Germany, hence the name.

However, similar bones were found in Rhodesia, feeding the theory that the Neanderthal men migrated from Africa.

They lived between 80,000BC and 35,000BC.

They had an elongated shape cranium with a small capacity, prominent jawbones, receding forehead and short, strong limbs.

Why and how they totally disappeared at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic is a total enigma.

Prehistoric Dordogne – Upper Paleolithic 40,000BC to 10,000BC

Homo sapiens or modern humans appeared around 40,000BC.

Cro-Magnon men lived in France from the Upper Paleolithic to the Neolithic and totally replaced Neanderthal men.

Prehistoric Dordogne - Magdalenian tools
Magdalenian tools

The first skeleton was found in the Cro-Magnon Shelter in Tayac, hence its name.

Cro-Magnon men were similar to modern men; they indeed had a large cranium capacity, a high forehead, long and strong limbs which gave them a perfect straight stance.

Perigordian and Aurignacian: Around 30,000BC and named after the site of Aurignac.

The neatly and finely blunted flint blades were as efficient as knives.

A profusion of bone, shells, ivory, flint ornaments artistically assembled, small sculptures of women mostly linked to the cult of fertility were found in the different sites.

Wall decorations appeared in the various caves with drawings, paintings and hands prints (Bara-Bahau, Pech-Merle, Font-de-Gaume, Cougnac, Lascaux sites).

Burial rituals indicate that the bodies of the deceased were painted with red ocher.

Solutrean: about 18,000BC and named after the site of Solutré-Pouilly in Saône-et-Loire department.

Slimmer flint blades were obtained by a new method of splitting under pressure on both sides.

Prehistoric Dordogne - Megaloceros in Lascaux
Megaloceros in Lascaux

The bone industry reached a new high with the apparition of the first needles with eyes (Rouffignac site).

Cro-Magnon men mastered the working techniques of bone, stone and ivory (assegais, harpoons, arrows…).

They also mastered cave art, as can be seen in La Madeleine, Font-de-Gaume, Combarelles, Lascaux and Cap-Blanc sites.

Magdalenian: about 10,000BC and named after La Madeleine rock shelter.

It is marked by the apogee of the tool and weapon making.

The Magdalenian lasted until the end of the last Ice Age or Pleistocene Epoch about 11,700BP.

Dislodged by a warmer climate, many animals migrated to the northern regions (reindeer, bears, mammoths, hairy rhinoceros…)

Prehistoric Dordogne - Horse in Lascaux
Horse in Lascaux

Some groups of hunters followed them and populated new regions.

The enigmatic Chancelade Men, who also belonged to the homo-sapiens group, appeared about 10,000BC.

The skeletons discovered in 1888 near the Abbaye of Chancelade, west of Périgueux, belonged to men of short stature with a large cranium, a large face and very high cheek bones and similar to the actual Inuits.

Their origin is still subject to controversy.

However, it is thought that they traveled from Asia or Eastern Europe, following the migration of their game when the climate warmed at the end of the Magdalenian period.

The populations who stayed in the South-West of France had to adapt to new conditions of life, switching from an economy of predation to an economy of production.

This transition phase corresponds to the Mesolithic.

Prehistoric Dordogne – Mesolithic 10,000BC to 7,500BC

Modern humans used these three millennia to evolve towards a society of production marked by hunting, gathering, fishing, wide use of microliths and the domestication of the first dogs.

Prehistoric Dordogne – Neolithic 7,500BC to 2,500BC

This era marks the neat development of an economy of production based on the beginning of agriculture and the domestication and breeding of farm animals, as well as a highly sophisticated level of polished stone weapons and ceramics.

Wikimedia Commons photos: headerMagdalenian tools la Madeleine Tursac – Aurochs – Murals in Lascaux

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