My travels: N for (Grotte de) Niaux

March 17, 2017

240px-Niaux,_bisonsI don’t think I fully realised what I was seeing when I was taken to the Grotte de Niaux when I was seventeen. There are caves in southern France and northern Spain where our stone age ancestors lived many thousands of years ago, and as part of their culture drew wonderful drawings, painted fantastic paintings of their hunts and their prey, pressed their inked palm-prints onto cave walls. I’ve read fascinating and hair-raising accounts of the cave explorers who first found, mapped and explored these caves nearly a century ago.

Nowadays, visits to such places are strictly limited, if not actually impossible; replica caves and replica paintings have been built there for tourists to visit in safety and comfort, and so that the originals can be preserved for the future. Even forty-five years ago, before such replicas were constructed, only a small number of visitors were allowed into the actual caves at any one time: the paintings were at risk from the very warmth of our breath and its dampness, which would eventually have resulted in the growth of lichens and other things on the cave walls and the paintings, eventually destroying them. We had to carry acetylene lamps, which give off very little heat, but which also provided scant illumination. I think the guide was allowed something more useful in order to be able to point out things to us. The darkness, the silence and the stillness helped but it was very hard to get my mind around those twenty or thirty thousand years that separated the oh so sophisticated teenager from his ancient forebears; I remember a feeling of awe something like that which I experience when looking up at the stars, and although now my memories of the visit are quite faint, I do have a couple of postcards which show some of those marvellous paintings and drawings: human handprints, animals leaping, hunting.

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