Site: Rock Art
This cave, unlike many other caves in the Les Eyzies area that are open to the public, has many, many more engravings than paintings. The usual range of animals are depicted here, including horses, bison, mammoth, reindeer and stags, bears, and lions. Images of human figures in European Palaelithic cave art are rare, but this cave has a number of depictions of humans, including stylized outlines of female bodies.
The art in the cave of Les Combarelles was discovered by archaeologists in September 1901. And it was the discovery and reporting of these engraved images that forced sceptics to accept the Palaeolithic age of cave art, first reported (but rejected) from the Spanish cave of Altamira. The deposits in an adjacent gallery had already been excavated in 1891-4. Since then there has been a lot of research carried out at this cave system. In 1973 a piece of charcoal was radio-carbon dated to between 11,380 – 13,680 years before the present.
The art in this cave is unusual in that there are many more images that were engraved into the rock surface, as opposed to having been painted on the cave walls. These engravings were made with a sharp tool “cutting” into the rock surface – creating images that are made up of fine-line incisions. This does not imply that these images are any less detailed than paintings.
The cave is particularly well known for an image of a reindeer that has been called “the drinking reindeer”. This large male reindeer is incredibly detailed, including a large rack of antlers and even the penis. As was so often the case with Palaeolithic cave art, prehistoric artists made use of natural features of the rock surface to give volume to the animals body and other anatomical features such as the eye. The reindeer was drawn with its head lowered, close to a natural crack in the rock face through which water once flowed. This is an incredibly striking image.
There are about 600 individual images in this cave, of which 245 are animals (horses, bison, mammoth, reindeer and stags, bears, and lions – there is even a single rhinoceros). The rest of the images include numerous geometric patterns, and a number of depictions of humans – some interesting incised outlines of human heads, prehistoric portraits if you like, and some very stylized images of the female body which often clearly depict breasts which allow for identity of the gender.
As a consequence of the way in which the incised images were made, they are not as easy to see as the painted images. But the guide will point out the details to you and all will be clear and you will be amazed by their detail and clarity of line. These are no simple stick figures!
Les Combarelles, along with 147 Palaeolithic archaeological sites and 25 decorated caves in the Vézère Valley, is on the UNESCO list of World heritage sites.
Facilities & Visiting Les Combarelles:
The ‘cave’ of Les Combarelles is a low and narrow passage that was formed by an underground stream. And although the floor has been lowered to allow for visitors to move through the cave, movement is still restricted. If you are claustrophobic – this is not a cave for you. So small is the cave that the guide will only take 5 or 6 people in at any one time, and you may not take bags or bulky clothing with you into the cave. And – as with any cave – never touch the wall.
The tour guides are French, and so most of the tours are conducted in French. Depending on the guide, however, some tours can be conducted in English or German.
Buying tickets for Les Combarelles
For conservation reasons the number of people taken into the cave each day is strictly limited. In 2015 only 42 people are allowed in per day. Tickets can be purchased in advance or on the day at the nearby site of Font de Gaume. See my definitive and authoritative account of to buying tickets for Les Combarelles (and Font de Gaume).
Where is Les Combarelles?
The cave is about 1.5 kms outside of the town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac on the Avenue des Grottes, and is well sign-posted.
- Official Website
- Vézère Valley and Les Combarelles on the UNESCO World Heritage List
- Archaeology Travel article: Tips for Visiting the Dordogne’s Ice Age Caves with Children
Photographs of Les Combarelles