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Cougnac Cave

Wounded Men, Placard-type signs
Megaloceros panel 23,000 BC

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Red ochre outline drawing of an ibex at Cougnac Cave
Painting of an Ibex from Cougnac Cave. Photo: GM, Panoramio (July 29, 2007) Source: Donsmaps.com

Grotte de Cougnac

Cougnac Cave is a Stone Age site of some importance in the Lot region of southwestern France. It's cave art is noted for three things:

Other decorated caves in the Lot, include Pech Merle Cave (Cabrerets), Roucadour Cave (Thémines), Pergouset (Saint-Géry), Cantal Cave (Le Verdié), and the Cave of Sainte-Eulalie (Espagnac-Sainte-Eulalie).

In 1954, Cougnac Cave was listed as a Historic Monument of France.

Painting of the Wounded Man, placed inside the Megaloceros Panel
Wounded Man (homme blessé) from the Red Megaloceros Frieze. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Location & Discovery

There are in fact two separate Cougnac caves, approximately 200 metres apart.

The first cave, which we do not deal with, has a large number of stalagmites and stalactites, as well as other concretions like soda straws.

The second is a decorated paleolithic cave.

They are located close to the village of Lavaysse, near Gourdon, in the Lot département of the Midi-Pyrénées region.

The decorated cave was discovered in 1952, by Jean Mazet, Lucien Gouloumes, René Borne, Roger, Maurice Boudet and Alphonse Sauvant.

In 1953, an examination of the cave's Stone Age art was conducted by archaeologists Meroc and Mazet.

Subsequent excavations were conducted by Michel Lorblanchet, who documented the imagery and performed numerous tests, including pigment analysis and also radiocarbon dating on samples of pigment used for certain drawings.

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Cougnac Cave Art

Placard-type Signs

In a side passage off the main gallery, in a deep part of the cave, there are six bird-like signs (aviforms), painted in black.

The same strange motifs are found in paleolithic caves across France, such as Le Placard, in the Charente, Pech Merle in the Lot, Cosquer Cave near Marseilles and Chauvet Pont d'Arc in the Ardèche.

Le Placard has twelve of these signs; Pech Merle has three, Cosquer has one (but originally might have had more), while Cougnac has eleven.

Why do these four caves - separated by 600 kms - share the same strange Placard-type signs? It must be that the occupiers of these caves were in contact with each other - possibly for trade or cultural reasons - but there is no clear answer.

See also: What is the Meaning of Cave Art?

What are Placard-type Signs?

Placard-type signs are prehistoric pictographs which appeared before 17,500 BC. They were described by prehistorian Jean Clottes as consisting of four typical components: a vertical rectangle, a horizontal band, and two underlying appendages.

The main gallery leads into the main chamber, where most of Cougnac's rock art is located.

Red Megaloceros Frieze

In the main chamber, the most impressive piece of prehistoric art is a frieze of red ochre figures, along the left-hand wall.

This features three giant deer or megaloceros (now extinct), mammoths (also extinct), several ibex, and what is believed to be a tahr - a large sure-footed wild goat, now limited to Asia.

One ibex is very carefully positioned, so that the shape of the flowstone on the wall creates the illusion of long hair hanging from its belly.

In addition, two large stalagmites in front of the ibex, were coloured with red pigment, thus serving as a frame through which to observe the animal.

In total, Cougnac contains more than 60 animal paintings, and features most of the standard mid-Gravettian animal repertoire, except horses, which were more common during the early Gravettian.

Wounded Men

In addition, the Megaloceros Frieze contains two charcoal drawings of wounded men. Both are painted in black, inside larger animal figures, and only the torso and legs are shown.

One has three spears sticking out of him; the other has seven.

The wounded man theme is exceedingly rare in paleolithic art, but examples can be seen at Pech-Merle and Lascaux, as well as Cougnac.

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Abstract Symbols

In addition to the aviforms mentioned above, the cave also contains a range of other abstract signs, including:

These mysterious cave symbols were clearly of some importance in Stone Age culture, but there is still no consensus among archaeologists as to their purpose.

Hand Stencils

There are more than 50 hand stencils at Cougnac.

Handprints are a regular feature of Upper Paleolithic art, with notable Gravettian collections at Gargas Cave in the Hautes-Pyrenees, and Cosquer Cave near Marseille.

For details of the type of paints used by cave artists at Cougnac and elsewhere, see Stone Age Colour Palette.

Dating

In the early 1990s a series of radiocarbon dating tests were performed on samples from Cougnac Cave.

These radiocarbon dates, along with other archaeological evidence, revealed the following:

See the World's Oldest Art (from 540,000 BC).

Franco-Cantabrian Art

Cougnac belongs to the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, which includes southwestern France, the Pyrenees, and the northern coast of Spain.

This region served as a sanctuary for northern Europeans fleeing icy temperatures during the Last Glacial Maximum, around 20,000 BC.

The influx of people is believed to have been a trigger for the upsurge in cave art in the region, during the Magdalenian period.

References

(1) "Payrignac, grotte de Cougnac, datations de pigments pariétaux au radiocarbone." (Payrignac, Cougnac cave, radiocarbon dating of parietal pigments) Lorblanchet M. 1993: Bilan scientifique 1992 (SRA DRAC Midi-Pyrénées), p. 99.
(2) "Étude des pigments de grottes ornées paléolithiques du Quercy." (Study of pigments from Palaeolithic decorated caves in Quercy) Lorblanchet M. et al. 1990: Bull. de la Soc. des Études du Lot 2, p. 93.
(3) "Les peintures de la grotte de Cougnac (Lot)." (Paintings in Cougnac Cave) Méroc et Mazet, 1953. L'Anthropologie, p. 490.

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