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Introduction to prehistory in Dordogne

Introduction to prehistory in the Vézère Valley


Known worldwide for the richness and density of its prehistoric sites, the Périgord Noir is one of the first cradles of knowledge of human evolution. In the Vézère valley alone, between Montignac-Lascaux and Les Eyzies, there are more than 200 Palaeolithic sites, including the famous decorated caves listed as a  “Unesco World Heritage Site”.

Prehistory began in the Dordogne Vézère 400,000 years ago with the arrival of Homo erectus, who came from the African continent. From him we find evidence of an already advanced technology, such as his flint tools and the use of fire, a sign of adaptation to the cold environment of the ice ages that marked Europe.


Later, Neanderthal, the first species of European origin, evolved in the Dordogne-Vézère. He left us abundant evidence of his tools and the game he hunted, until his disappearance 30,000 years ago. He was the first human ancestor to bury his dead, as shown by the burials at La Ferrassie and Le Moustier, attesting to spiritual and symbolic concerns.


But it is to our direct ancestor, Homo sapiens sapiens or Cro-Magnon, who arrived in the Dordogne-Vézère 35,000 years ago, that we owe the remarkable abundance of artistic and symbolic expression, which is manifested through the abundance of adornment (beads, pierced teeth, bracelets), sculptures and engravings on bone and stone, and by the magnificent caves and decorated shelters such as  Lascaux, Font de Gaume, Combarelles, Cap Blanc, Castel Merle, Bara-Bahau and many others.

He was also the inventor of many technical innovations in the work of stone, bone, reindeer antler and mammoth ivory, which enabled him to invent new tools such as the needle and the spear.

All of his ancestors were nomadic hunter-gatherers, living off the land. Remember that man has only been a sedentary farmer for 10,000 years and that this first way of life therefore covers 99% of human history...

But why are there so many prehistoric remains in the Dordogne Vézère? One could say that our ancestors were attracted by favourable conditions, offering essential resources: game, fish, flint for tool making. But didn't these conditions exist elsewhere?

The abundance of remains in the Périgord can also be explained by other factors. First of all, the exceptional preservation of the remains in the caves and rock shelters where the limestone has protected them from natural or human destruction.

Finally, the large number of known sites in the Dordogne is also the result of a long history of research and protection. For more than a century and a half, excavations and studies have fed our knowledge in an almost uninterrupted way; it is here that the first prehistorians established a chronology which is still considered today as a world reference. La Micoque, le Moustier, la Madeleine are the sites, known throughout the world, which gave their name to the great cultures of prehistory.

And this research continues... Today, the Périgord Noir, in particular with the  Regourdou site, still plays a key role in the great questions posed by the history of humanity, such as the disappearance of Neanderthal, its relationship with our ancestor, Homo sapiens sapiens, the appearance of art, and so many others.

With numerous sites open to the public, like the National Museum of Prehistorywith the conferences and educational activities proposed, amateurs and tourists are invited to participate in this great quest for human origins.


Grotte de Font de Gaume, Les Eyzies ©P.Jugie
Grotte de Font de Gaume, Les Eyzies ©P.Jugie