Prehistoric France and a timeline of prehistory in France

To be in the exact same place as our ancestors once lived, hunted, and painted the walls of their caves can be an almost overwhelming experience, and most of us are fascinated by our ancestors when we visit a place where prehistoric man was known to live.

Yet 10,000 years is perhaps just 500 generations, to transform the world from the world of cavemen to the world we now know, and it is just 5,000 years (250 generations) since Neolithic man was creating the first settlements and villages...

Timeline of Prehistoric Man in France

Approximate Date Stage of development of man
   
950,000-80,000 BC Homo Erectus, earliest man found in France
...400,000 BC Discovery of Fire
80,000-30,000 BC Neanderthal Man
33,000-10,000 BC Homo Sapiens - Cro Magnon Man, found in Dordogne
4,000-2,500 BC Neolithic revolution - settled locations, grew crops, kept animals

There are two clearly defined stages of development in prehistoric man. The first is 'Cro-Magnon' when man first learned to make stone tools, and lived in caves where they created the famous cave paintings. The second stage is Neolithic Man, or 'late stone age' when man learned to settle, to build shelters, to grow crops and keep animals:

 
 

Cro-magnon France

Our interest in Prehistoric France starts around 35,000 years ago, with cro-magnon man. Following the 19th century discoveries of Cro-Magnon man in the Dordogne region, and the first cave paintings, the region has been found to have one of the greatest concentrations of prehistoric artefacts anywhere in the world. The best known cave paintings are those at Lascaux, although those more recently discovered at Chauvet in the Pyrenees are now thought to be much older.

It is a fascinating story, albeit slow in the production - learning to make ever more advanced tools form flint took Homo Erectus more than 100,000 years. Meanwhile cave paintings were 'invented' and it is very probable that other social rituals were developed at the same time.

Cave paintings at Lascaux

In the Dordogne region, and above all in the Vézère Valley, the story can be seen unfolding in a multitude of important cliff dwellings, caves and other sites. The most famous, of course, are the world renowned caves at Lascaux, and their stunning paintings of animals. The discovery of the remains of Neanderthal man (from 80,000 years ago) and Cro-Magnon man (30,000 years old) in the same region ensure it's place in history as the 'origin of mankind in Europe'.

The reason for the paintings remains unknown. Sometimes representing animals that might have been hunted, but perhaps being animals that were considered sacred for some reason, we can now only speculate what prompted man 30,000 years ago to take a small candle to the deep recesses of a cave and paint on the walls.

Interestingly, it is thought that the caves were not generally inhabited, largely because of the darkness. Rather, there would be a settlement around the entrance to a cave, with the 'front cave' used for shelter and storage perhaps and little reason to enter into the depths of the cave.

Visiting Caves and seeing Cave Paintings

Note that because of the sensitivity of the paintings to environmental change, Lascaux caves are now visited at Lascaux II, a (very good quality) replica nearby, rather than the original, and Chauvet is not open to the public, although  a replica might also be prepared there at some point. Numerous 'lesser' cave paintings can be seen in the Dordogne region, most around Les Eyzies.

Neolithic France

Across much of France there is then evidence of Neolithic man, from about 4,000 BC onwards. The great advance was that Neolithic man learned to construct dwellings for himself - mostly of wood, but later also of stone. This enabled a suitable location to be chosen and settled, crops to be grown and animals reared for food.

The largest concentration of evidence of these Neolithic settlements in France is found in Brittany. Initially it was the village tomb that was built of stone, then stone huts were built in the vicinity. Carnac in Brittany has fine examples of standing stones and burial mounds from this period.

 
 

One of the most interesting Neolithic finds was at Cerny, near Paris. Aerial photography of the region identified features on the ground that remained invisible at ground level, including burial mounds and long ditches. These subsequently were shown to contain human remains from the Neolithic period, and the 'aerial photo' technique has subsequently proved effective elsewhere at identifying these ancient civilisations.

Carnac, Brittany

Carnac, Brittany

Another incredible Neolithic find is at lakes Chalain and Clairvaux in the Jura region. Due to flooding, some houses and other tools etc have been preserved under water for several thousand years. Unfortunately they have to remain in the water, so can't be visited.

This new approach to living allowed Neolithic man to live further than before from immediate sources of food. So rather than being forced to occupy fertile lowlands, it was now possible to move higher up hills and further from food supplies. This was a great step forward in the colonisation of France (and the same elsewhere) and the spread of mankind as a whole.

Prehistoric sites in France: visiting prehistoric  and neolithic remains

Megaliths

Morbihan, in Brittany, is the best place in France to see neolithic remains such as megaliths and standing stones. Places to visit in the region include Carnac, nearby Locmariaquer and Kerzerho, the island of Gavrinis and Petit-Mont d’Arzon, several sites around Erdeven, the Cairn de Barnenez (near Plouezoc'h), and the Champ Dolent Menhir in Dol-de-Bretagne,

Other important megalithic structures in France include the carved figures at Filitosa in Corsica and the dolmen at Le Pouget (Languedoc).

Prehistoric art

The Dordogne and UNESCO listed Vézère Valley contains more important sites of prehistoric art than any other region of France, including Lascaux II caves and Font de Gaume, and several others such as the Abri de la Madeleine and the cave at Rouffignac.

Elsewhere in France other important examples of prehistoric art are found at the Niaux cave (Ariege), Chauvet cave in the Ardeche (one of the most important prehistoric sites in France but unfortunately not open to the public), the small Grotte du Vallonnet near Roquebrune-Cap-Martin