“Standing in front of those paintings, made in the ice ages, made by hands of humans long gone, was so touching. I can not find the words to describe the experience. To see the gracefulness of their lines, how they played with light and shadow, how they worked and planned to represent these scenes. Standing there was like being in touch with some ancient past and at the same time feeling as if the person who had made these brushstrokes could have been there 5 minutes ago. The past and present becoming one – losing the disconnect we must live with. I stood in the dark cold cave and cried at the overwhelming beauty and mystery of it all. Such a welcome feeling – something I think I have always sought – a connection to those who came before.”
I wrote these words three years ago after a visit to Font de Gaume in the Dordogne region of France (which by the way makes a spectacular & unforgettable vacation spot – use Sarlat-la-Canéda as your homebase). Font de Gaume is a cave that contains over 200 prehistoric cave paintings.
The experience I had at Font de Gaume is the kind of experience I travel for. In all of my life I have never felt such awe or so humble. I have also never felt so connected – to life, to those who came before. It is hard to express how different the experience of seeing cave paintings in person is to looking at pictures of them. While shadows & light from torches once made horses run and bison move, flashlights still do a pretty good job of bringing the paintings to life. These are not flat one dimensional beasts that adorn the walls, but paintings that have been thought out to evoke the spirit of the animals. You realize, standing in the darkness that long ago, brilliant, artistic minds were at work. These people, your brothers, your sisters, were not that stereotypical caveman you’ve seen portrayed so many times, but spirited talented souls who were leaving their mark on the world.
I invite you, no, I beg you to make the trip to see cave paintings at some point in your life. And if you can, step a little bit back from the tour group, walk just a little slower and then stand still so that you can feel the sweet intimacy of wonder these paintings gift to you. Life should be sweet like that. I want that for you.
Cave Art Sites That You Can Visit
Not all cave systems that contain cave paintings are open to the public, but there are a number of amazing caves that you can visit. Most caves require reservations so I included links to instructions on getting reservations when I was able to find them. Also note that many of the caves are in out of the way locations so you will probably want to rent a car in order to visit them. Make sure to plan for your visits well in advance.
Altamira Cave System (Spain) – known as the Sistine chapel of Paleolithic art
Bara-Bahau (France) – engravings (no paintings) of horses, bison, bears, human hands and more from the Magdalenian period
Cave of Swimmers (Egypt) – paintings of swimming figures from around 8,000 years ago.
Chumash Painted Cave (USA) – paintings from the 1600’s & earlier created by the Chumash Native Americans
Cresswell Crags (UK) – Britain’s only known rock art dating from around 13,000 years ago
Cueva de las Manos (Argentina) – famous for “stenciled” paintings of hands. Also paintings of human beings, animals, geometric shapes and red dots
El Castillo (Spain) – contains Europe’s oldest dated art
Lascaux II – (France) well reviewed meticulous reproduction of the famous Lascaux Cave
Les Combarelles (France) – more than 800 engravings
Font de Gaume (France) – Over 200 prehistoric polychromatic paintings
Kakadu National Park (Australia) – aboriginal art estimated to range in age from 20,000 years to recent present
Niaux cave (France) – contains paintings from the Magdalenian period. Beautiful views of a glacier formed valley from the cathedral like cave entrance
Peche Merle (France) – paintings dating from 25,000 BCE. Over 576 images
Rouffignac (France) – 224 animal representations and 4 human figures dating from around 13000 BP
Serra de Capivara National Park (Brazil) – Home to over 800 rock shelters and more than 30,000 rock paintings
Sierra de San Francisco (Mexico) – Difficult to get to. Well preserved paintings of human figures, animals and their relationship to their environment
Sorcier (France) – Engravings of humans, animals & linear signs. An UNESCO World Heritage site
Tito Bustillo (Spain) – paintings & engravings of deer, horses & female figures
Villars (France) – prehistoric paintings dating to the Magdalenian period. Known for the rotunda of horses
Want to learn more:
Have you seen cave art in person? How did it make you feel?
About the Author: Kate is a travel junkie at heart. She lives for exploring cultures, food, history and local life and is currently scheming ways to get enough time free to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Get Trip Logic Updates by Email.