February 25, 2011

Niaux Cave in the Ariege Region of France

People familiar with the ancient paleolithic heritage of Europe are familiar with the Ice Age cave paintings of the famous Altamira Cave in Spain, or Lascaux and Chauvet in France. What is less well known is that there are some 350 caves in France and Spain alone that contain cave art. One of the best preserved and yet less well known sites is Niaux Cave.

Looking up at the Pyrenees foothills from Niaux Cave

Looking down on Tarascon from the Pyrenees foothills

Niaux Cave is located in the beautiful Ariege region of France, at the base of the Pyrenees. There is much to see in the area beyond the cave and the best home base to do so is the small town of Tarascon-sur-Ariège. It contains great restaurants, beautiful surroundings, and numerous activities.

Notice the spears in the sides of these bison

A European Lion carving on bone

The Niaux Cave Paintings date back to the period between 10,500-11,500 BC near the end of the Ice Age. It contains paintings of prehistoric animal species such as bison, ibex, horses, auroch...all of which are extinct in the region, plus red deer and other species. Many of them show signs of being hunted, such as spears in their sides. It is not clear why people ventured in so deeply into caves to make these paintings. Perhaps they were ritualistic ceremonies made by shamans to bring big game to the valleys. Perhaps they were teaching tools in the cold winter months for adults to train young hunters. Whatever the reasons, the quality of the art and the state of preservation after so many thousands of years is outstanding.


There are tours into the cave, with several French language tours per day and one English tour. But, the tours are small and often fill up fast (or needing reservations), so they have built a museum called the Prehistoric Art Park which contains an exact replica of the cave and its paintings, as well as, containing many prehistoric artifacts that were discovered in and around the cave. This museum provides visitors a great opportunity to get a feel for the cave without going in it, as well as, an introduction to the scene if you are doing the tour. We went in early April (the off season), so there was no issue getting a tour.

A museum interpreter demonstrating making fire for a school group

Since photographs are not allowed in the cave itself, the photographs you see here are from the museum. But, it really did look that way inside. The Prehistoric Art Park also contains some outdoor exhibits where interpreters demonstrate the making of stone, wood, and bone tools and how they made fire using fungi, moss, and grass.

Beyond the cave and museum, Tarascon is also a great jumping off place for exploring the nearby Pyrenees Mountains including the tiny nation of Andorra.

The Pyrenees near Tarascon in April

No comments: