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Drinking Reindeer:
Les Combarelles Cave

Prehistoric engraving, Dordogne

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Engraved drawing of a reindeer drinking, at Les Combarelles Cave, in the Vézère Valley, Périgord
Drinking Reindeer: one of the most famous engravings found at Les Combarelles Cave in the Dordogne. Photo: French Ministry of Culture. Source: Donsmaps.com

Summary

The Drinking Reindeer is one of the most famous rock engravings in the prehistoric cave of Les Combarelles, in southwestern France.

Dated to around 11,700 BC, it is regarded as a masterpiece of Magdalenian art, created during the final phase of the Paleolithic.

Where is the Cave of Les Combarelles Located?

The cave is located on the left bank of the River Beune, about three kilometres from Les Eyzies de Tayac in the French Dordogne.

It consists of two caves: the more extensive Combarelles I (site of the Drinking Reindeer), and the smaller Combarelles II.

The cave network is noted for its long, low and exceptionally narrow passages that have space for only one person at a time.

Other paleolithic caves in the area include: Font de Gaume (14,000 BC), Abri du Poisson (23,000 BC), Abri de la Madeleine (13,000), Rouffignac Cave (11,000 BC), and the incomparable Lascaux Cave (19,000 BC).

Who Discovered the Drinking Reindeer?

Les Combarelles contains over 600 petroglyphs, including the Drinking Reindeer. Traces of dye on the rock surfaces, suggest the rock carvings were originally coloured.

The carvings were first discovered by Monsieur Berniche, the owner of the cave, who duly sought the advice of archaeologists Louis Capitain (1854-1929), Denis Peyrony (1869-1954) and Henri Breuil (1877-1961).

After studying the parietal art, the scientists confirmed it was produced during the Magdalenian era, during the final period of Upper Paleolithic art.

In 1924, the trio published a joint monograph on the cave art at Les Combarelles, including the Drinking Reindeer engraving. More recently, in 1978, the archaeologist Claude Barriere resumed research at the cave, and published his own monograph on the subject.

Who Carved the Drinking Reindeer?

The engraving was created by Cro-Magnons, the sub-species of modern humans who occupied Europe from about 55,000 BC.

By 37,000 BC, modern humans had driven the indigenous Neanderthals to extinction, leaving themselves masters of the entire continent.

Drinking Reindeer: Description

The animal - an adult reindeer - is shown in profile, cautiously stretching forward, with its tongue extended, to lap up water from a crack in the wall, where water collects.

Its forlegs are thrust forward to prevent it falling, while its hind legs support a fully developed rump.

The animal has a full spread of antlers, with wide, fingered webs. The large size of the antlers may indicate the animal is male, although both male and female reindeer develop them.

So - as there are no other obvious signs of gender - it remains unclear whether the animal is a bull or a cow.

How Does it Compare with Other Engravings in the Cave?

Les Combarelles contains more than 600 figurative engravings, as well as numerous abstract signs of various kinds, including tectiforms.

The most common images are horses, reindeer, bison, and mammoths, but the cave also has pictures of bears, rhinoceroses, a large feline, together with several humanlike figures.

Sadly, many engraved drawings have faded, while the large number of superimposed pictures makes it almost impossible to assimilate each individual image.

The animals were drawn over a period of about two millennia, and many are grouped together in dense panels, containing a mass of superimposed images, one on top of another, making it hard to see which limb belongs to what animal.

The Drinking Reindeer is bigger and clearer than many other engravings in the cave, and has few if any superimpositions.

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Significance

The Drinking Reindeer is significant because it's one of many exquisite examples of prehistoric rock art, that convinced scientists that Magdalenian man posessesed advanced cognitive and cultural skills.

It was this type of figurative imagery that - togther with new types of stone tools - was at the heart of the 'Cognitive Revolution' engineered by modern humans around the globe.

The caves of the Vézère Valley, including Les Combarelles, played a major role in this 'Cognitive Revolution', which is why the area has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Other Famous Engraved Drawings

Other famous engravings created in France during the last phase of the Stone Age, include:

For the chronology of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) Cartailhac, Émile (1902). "Les cavernes ornées de dessins". Anthropologie (in French). 3: 348–354.
(2) Lawson, Andrew J. (2012). Painted Caves: Palaeolithic Rock Art in Western Europe. Oxford University Press. p. 25. ISBN 9780199698226.
(3) Auzias, Dominique. "La Roque-Saint-Christophe". Best of Périgord 2019. Petit Futé. ISBN 9782305014227.
(4) Muskett, Georgina (2018). Archaeology Hotspot France: Unearthing the Past for Armchair Archaeologists. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 32. ISBN 9781442269231.

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