Magdalenian Engravings, tectiforms
Drinking Reindeer: 11,700 BC
The cave of Les Combarelles is one of the great showcases of Franco-Cantabrian art in the French Dordogne.
In total, Les Combarelles has over 600 petroglyphs carved into the sandy walls of its narrow passages.
Most are engraved drawings of horses, bison, stags, ibex, and mammoths. A memorable highlight is the famous image of the Drinking Reindeer - a masterpiece of naturalism.
All in all, Les Combarelles is considered to be one of the finest sites of Magdalenian rock carving.
In 1952, the leading prehistorian, Henri Breuil described Les Combarelles one of the six 'giants' of paleolithic art in Europe, alongside Lascaux Cave (Dordogne), Font de Gaume (Dordogne), Trois Frères Cave (Ariège), Niaux Cave (Ariège) and Altamira Cave (Cantabria, Spain).
Les Combarelles Cave is located in the valley of the Grand Beune River, some 3 kilometres from the village of Les Eyzies de Tayac.
It consists of two galleries, one of which has relatively little art and is closed to the public. The main gallery, which twists and zig-zags along its entire length of 300 metres, is unusually narrow, averaging no more than 1 metre in width.
The cave entrance was first excavated by Emile Rivière, between 1891 and 1894, but the drawings was only discovered in 1901 by the owner Mr. Berniche, who turned to archaeologists Louis Capitain (1854-1929), Denis Peyrony (1869-1954) and Henri Breuil (1877-1961), for authentication.
After studying the rock art, the scientists confirmed it was produced in the Magdalenian era, during the final period of the Upper Paleolithic.
The cave art at Les Combarelles (discovered 1901) - along with that of other paleolithic caves like Font de Gaume (1901), Niaux Cave (1906), Cap Blanc (1908), Tuc d'Audoubert Cave (1912) and Trois Frères Cave (1914) - convinced scientists that Cro-Magnons possessed genuine visual perception and cultural skills.
Until then, it was assumed by many experts that the ability to perceive, imagine and retrieve the necessary visual information from previous episodes of viewing live animals, was beyond the capabilities of early humans, including moderns.
Radiocarbon dating of bones shows the cave was inhabited by Cro-Magnon people between 11,700 and 9,400 years before the present.
Comparative analysis of the style, technique and content of the engravings indicates they were carved over a period of about two millennia (12,000-10,000 BC).
Les Combarelles Cave contains well over 600 images, including 300 identifiable animals averaging between 25 centimetres and 1 metre in length.
Nearly all the images are engraved, there is no cave painting per se, although some engraved drawings are also outlined in black.
The most common species are horses and bison, followed by stags, ibex, and mammoths, as well as smaller numbers of bears, reindeer, antelopes, cave lions, rhinoceros, plus the occasional snake, fox, bird and fish.
Two groups of animals are particularly noticeable.
First, a group of 14 mammoths, including calves covered with hair, and older specimens with less hair. All are rendered with great accuracy and in some detail.
Second, a group of four horses complete with markings that clearly show they are domesticated. Two have markings from some sort of bridle; the other two have some sort of covering on their back.
Some of the engravings are quite deeply incised (up to 6 mm), while some of the outlines are accentuated with a stroke of black pigment (manganese dioxide).
The carving technique employed is the same as that used on ivory carvings from the Magdalenian period, and the style is naturalistic: the animals have been drawn exactly as seen, with no interpretation.
One of the great highlights of Stone Age culture at Les Combarelles is the engraved drawing known as the Drinking Reindeer (11,000 BC).
In addition to the animal figures, the cave also contains 52 anthropomorphs, including several strange figures, like the Seated Man, as well as groups of stylized female figures - sometimes depicted without a head or arms, or even breasts, but invariably with grossly oversized buttocks.
For another Magdalenian cave with images of human figures, see Addaura Cave engravings (10,000 BC).
There are also a number of abstract signs and other non-figurative markings. They include:
The first images appear about 70 metres into the cave, but the first clearly defined animal figures only appear around the half-way point. After this, the narrow passageway is covered with engravings on both sides until the end.
In fact, the walls contain such an array of animal images that many are superimposed over others, making it difficult to discern which limb belongs to what body.
In addition, the walls have eroded over time, making many images hard to see or define. Also, numerous images are overlaid with a film of calcite, which can obscure them completely.
For the earliest artworks in history, see: World's Oldest Art.
For more showcases of Franco-Cantabrian art during the Magdalenian era, see these articles:
(1) "Gravures paléolithiques sur les parois de la grotte des Combarelles près des Eyzies (Dordogne)." (Palaeolithic engravings on the walls of the Combarelles cave near Les Eyzies) Capitan L., Breuil H., 1902. Bulletins de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris, V Série, tome 3, 1902. pp. 527-535.
(2) "Figures préhistoriques de la grotte des Combarelles (Dordogne)." (Prehistoric figures from the Combarelles cave, Dordogne). Capitan L., Breuil H., 1902. Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, 46e année, N. 1, 1902. pp. 51-56.
(3) "Les Combarelles aux Eyzies (Dordogne)." (Les Combarelles in Les Eyzies) Capitan L., Breuil H., Peyrony D., 1924. Archives de l' Institut de Paléontologie humaine. 1924, 192 p.128.