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Prehistory in the Dordogne

The Quarternary Era is relatively young, since it only began about two million years ago. Nevertheless, it is during this short period that human evolution has taken place. There is no definitive evidence of life having existed on Earth in the Pre-Cambrian Age; reptiles, fish and tailless amphibians appeared in the course of the Primary Era, mammals and birds during the Secondary Era. Primates, the most ancient ancestors of mankind, appeared at the end of the Tertiary Era and were followed in the Quarternary Era by ever more advanced species.

The slow pace of human progress during the Palaeolithic Age is quite extraordinary: it took people nearly two million years to learn to polish stone. Yet, the few thousand years that followed saw in the Middle and Far East the development of brilliant civilisations which reached their zenith in the construction of the pyramids in Egypt. A few centuries later bronze was discovered, followed, in approximately 900 BC, by that of iron.


The study of prehistory is a science essentially French in origin which began in the early 19C. Until that time only the occasional reference by a Greek or Latin author, a study by the Italian scholar Mercati (1541-93) in the 16C and a paper by Jussieu, published in 1723, gave any hint of the existence of ancient civilisations. In spite of the scepticism of most learned men – led by Cuvier (1769-1832) – researchers pursued their investigations in the Périgord, Lozère and the Somme Valley. Boucher de Perthes ’ (1788-1868) discoveries at St-Acheul and Abbeville were the catalyst for an important series of studies, but it was Paul Tournal who in 1831 first used the term prehistory to describe the evidence of ancient human culture that was emerging at the time from certain caves in France. Among the pioneers who laid modern archaeology’s foundations are:

Édouard Lartet (1801-71), who undertook many excavations in the Vézère Valley and established a preliminary classification for the various eras of prehistory; Gabriel de Mortillet (1821-98), who undertook and completed the classification, adding the names Chellean, Mousterian, Aurignacian, Solutrean and Magdalenian to correspond with the places where the most prolific or most characteristic deposits were found: Chelles in the Seine-et-Marne, Le Moustier in the Dordogne, Aurignac in the Haute-Garonne, Solutré in the Saône-et-Loire and La Madeleine in the Dordogne.

Excavations can only be performed by specialists with knowledge of the geological stratigraphy, the physics and chemistry of rock formations, the nature and form of stones and gravels, and the ability to analyse fossilised wood, coal and bone fragments.

In rock shelters and the entrances to caves, prehistorians have discovered hearths (accumulations of charcoal and kitchen debris), tools, weapons, stone and bone furnishings and bone fragments. These vestiges are collected in layers; during excavations each of these different layers is uncovered and the civilisation or period is reconstructed.

Prehistory in the Périgord

The Périgord has been inhabited since Palaeolithic times. The names Tayacian (Les Eyzies-de-Tayac), Micoquean (La Micoque), Mousterian (Le Moustier), Perigordian and Magdalenian (La Madeleine) are evidence of the importance of these prehistoric sites. Nearly 200 deposits have been discovered, of which more than half are in the Vézère Valley near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac.

The Palaeolithic Age

Our most distant ancestors (some three million years ago) were the early hominids (ie the family of man) of East Africa, who, unlike their instinctive predecessors, were rational thinkers. They evolved into Homo habilis , followed by Homo erectus , characterised by his upright walking (Java man or Pithecanthropus erectus , discovered by E Dubois in 1891, with a cranial capacity midway between that of the most highly developed ape and the least developed man): and Peking man or Sinanthropus (identified by D. Black in 1927), who made rough-hewn tools, tools for chopping from split pebbles and heavy bifaced implements.

Neanderthal man appeared c 150 000 years ago. In 1856, in the Düssel Valley (also known as the Neander Valley, east of Düsseldorf, Germany) portions of a human skeleton were discovered with the following characteristics: a cranial capacity of approximately 1 500cm³/91.5in³ an elongated cranium (dolichocephalus), a sharply receding forehead, prominently developed jawbones and a small stature (1.60m/5ft 3in).

Skeletons with similar characteristics were found in France at La Chapelle-aux-Saints (Corrèze) in 1908, at Le Moustier (Dordogne) in 1909, at La Ferrassie (Dordogne) in 1909 and 1911, and at Le Régourdou (Dordogne) in 1957. The Neanderthal group completely disappeared without descendants 35 000 years ago; at the same time the first burial sites started to appear.

Homo sapiens were flourishing in France about 40 000 years ago. Their essential characteristics – perfect upright stance, raised forehead, slightly projecting eyebrows – showed them to be highly developed and comparable to people today ( sapiens means intelligent). Several races have been traced as belonging to this same family. Cro-Magnon individuals must have been quite similar in appearance to the present Homo sapiens .

Cro-Magnon man (named after skeletons found in the rock shelters of Cro-Magnon in the Dordogne and Solutré in the Saône-et-Loire) was tall – about 1.80m/5ft 11in – with long, robust limbs denoting considerable muscular strength; the skull was dolichocephalic in shape. These people lived in the Upper Palaeolithic to the Neolithic Ages.

Chancelade man (from a skeleton discovered in 1889 at Chancelade , near Périgueux) appeared in the Magdalenian Period; these people had a large cranium of dolichocephalic form, a long, wide face, pronounced cheekbones and a height of not more than 1.55m/5ft 1in.

Culture and Art in the Palaeolithic Age

The oldest skeletons belonging to Neanderthals, found in the Périgord and the Quercy , date from the Mousterian Culture (Middle Palaeolithic).

Later, during the Ice Age, tribes are thought to have come from Eastern Europe and settled in the Vézère and Beune valleys. Bordering these valleys were cliffs and slopes pitted with caves and shelters offering many natural advantages which flatter landscapes were unable to provide: protection from the cold, nearby springs and rivers abundant in fish, and narrow ravines used for intercepting game as it passed through. There were, however, several dwelling huts found in the Isle Valley , upstream from Périgueux.

The Palaeolithic Age ( palaeos means ancient, lithos means stones) covers the period in which people knew only how to chip flints. An intermediate age, the Mesolithic ( mesos means middle), separates it from the Neolithic Age ( neos means new), when they learnt to polish stone. The first group were predators (hunting, fishing and gathering), whereas the last group were farmers and breeders. Skill in flint-knapping evolved very slowly and, therefore, the Palaeolithic Age is subdivided into three periods: the Lower, Middle and Upper.

Lower Palaeolithic

This began about two million years ago. People living in this period in the Périgord knew how to use fire and hunted big game. The earth suffered three successive ice ages known as the Günz, the Mindel and the Riss (after the tributary valleys of the Danube where they were studied). Between each ice age, France and Britain had a tropical climate.

Flint-knapping began with a cut made by striking two stones violently one against the other, or by striking one against a rock which served as an anvil.

Middle Palaeolithic

This began about 150 000 years ago. Neanderthal society brought with it better finished and more specialised tools. Mousterian industry used both bifaced implements and flakes. New methods enabled triangular points to be produced, also scrapers, probably used for working skins, and flints adapted to take a wooden handle and serve as hunting clubs (bear skulls pierced by such weapons have been found).

During the Mousterian Culture some cave entrances were used as dwellings, others were used as burial places. More sophisticated weapons were developed and used to hunt big game and animal skins provided protection from the cold.

Upper Palaeolithic

This began about 35 000 years ago. Cro-Magnon and Chancelade individuals replaced Neanderthals. During this period there was a constant improvement in the production of tools; living conditions were made easier with the perfecting of new hunting methods, resulting in more leisure time and, therefore, artistic expression.

Perigordian and Aurignacian cultures

These two cultures, following the Mousterian and Levalloisian cultures and preceding the Solutrean culture, were contemporary but parallel.

The Aurignacian stone industry produced large blades, stone flake tools, burins (a sort of chisel) and points made from antlers (early ones have a split base). Cave decoration, applied to blocks of limestone ( La Ferrassie near Le Bugue) and at times in tiny caves, consisted of engraved animals, painted or partially carved, or female figures.

At the end of the Perigordian culture, Gravettians made burins and points; these people decorated their shelter walls ( Le Poisson , Laussel), and carved Venus figurines (small female statues with exaggerated curves evoking fertility).

Burial places contain some ornaments and jewellery, such as shells and bead necklaces. The first examples of wall decoration appear as hands placed flat against the rock and outlined in black or red; these can be found at Font-de-Gaume and Le Pech Merle , although the animals depicted are sketched in a rudimentary fashion. By the end of this period, people had truly discovered their artistic nature, as the sculptures at the Abri du Poisson (Fish Shelter) and the engravings and paintings found at Font-de-Gaume and Lascaux show. The Grève cave with its engraved bison in turned profile dates from between the late Perigordian and early Solutrean periods.

Solutrean Culture

Very well represented in the Dordogne, this period is distinguished by exquisite low-relief sculptures carved out of limestone slabs, such as the Devil’s Oven , found near Bourdeilles and now exhibited in the National Museum of Prehistory at Les Eyzies.

The stone-cutting industry also underwent a brilliant period during the Solutrean culture. Flint blades, following a method of splitting under pressure, became much slimmer, forming blades in the shape of laurel or willow leaves. Shouldered points were used as weapons, after they had been fitted with wooden shafts. It was during this period that needles with eyes appeared.

Magdalenian Culture

It was in this period that bone and ivory craftsmanship reached its peak. The existence of herds of reindeer, which is accounted for by the very cold climate that occurred at the end of the Würm Glacial Period, encouraged carvers to work with bone and antler, producing perforated batons, sometimes engraved, which were used as armatures for points and harpoon heads; projectile tips, sometimes engraved, used as spears; and decorated flattened points.

This is also the period when cave wall art, depicting essentially animal subjects, reached its peak. To protect themselves from the cold, people of the Magdalenian culture lived in the shelter of overhanging rocks or at the mouths of caves; inside, these caves were underground sanctuaries, at times quite some distance from the cave entrance.

They used the shelter (as at the Cap-Blanc Shelter) and sanctuary walls to express their artistic or religious emotions by low-relief carving, engraving and painting. This period introduced a very sophisticated style compared to the more rudimentary outline drawings of the Perigordian and Aurignacian cultures. However, due to the juxtaposition or superimposition of the figures drawn and deterioration (only a few Magdalenian caves are open to the public due to the difficulty in preserving the art), the study of these paintings is not easy.

After Lascaux , numerous cave-sanctuaries appeared during the Middle and Upper Magdalenian periods. Portable art, manifested through smaller objects, is another form of expression developed in the shelters. Animals are much less stylised and increasingly realistic in the details of their anatomy and their movements, as well as the faithful and detailed rendering of their physical aspects: coat, tail, eyes, ears, hoofs, antlers and tusks.

Nonetheless, the style is more ornamental. The perspective of the animals in profile, non-existent in the beginning, was pursued and even distorted during Lascaux’s last period. New graphic techniques appeared: stencilling, areas left intentionally without colour, polychrome colours etc. Towards the end of the Magdalenian culture, art became more schematic and human figures made their appearance. Animal art then disappeared from France and Spain, as the herds of reindeer migrated northwards in search of lichen, which was disappearing during the climatic warming at the end of the Würm Glacial Period.

Time Line

Gauls and Romans

BC The Périgord is inhabited by the Petrocorii and the Quercy by the Caduici .

6-5C The Bituriges Cubi people settle in the Berry.

59-51 Conquest of Gaul by Caesar . The last Gaulish resistance to Caesar is at Uxellodunum , which historians believe to be in the Quercy.

16 Emperor Augustus creates the province of Aquitaine. The capital of the land of the Petrocorii is Vesunna (Périgueux) and of that of the Caduici, Divona Cadurcorum ( Cahors ).


1-3C Pax Romana . For three centuries towns develop and several public buildings are built. In the countryside around the towns new crops are introduced by the Romans: walnut, chestnut and cherry trees and above all vineyards.

late 3C The Berry and the Limousin are incorporated into primitive Aquitaine ; Bourges is its capital.

235-284 Alemanni and Franks invade the region. In 276, several towns are razed. Vesunna defends itself behind fortifications hastily built from the stones taken from Roman public buildings.

313 Edict of Milan . Emperor Constantine grants Christians the freedom of worship.

476 End of the Roman Empire.

Merovingians and Carolingians

486-507 Clovis , king of the Franks, conquers Gaul and Aquitaine.

8C The Quercy and Périgord become counties under the kingdom of Aquitaine.

800 Charlemagne is crowned Emperor of the West in Rome.

9C The Dordogne and Isle valleys and Périgueux are laid waste by Vikings .

10C The four baronies of the Périgord – Mareuil, Bourdeilles, Beynac and Biron – are formed as well as the overlordships of Ans, Auberoche, Gurson etc.

The County of Périgord passes to the house of Talleyrand. Powerful families rule the Quercy.

c 950 Beginning of the pilgrimage to St James’ shrine in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

12C Many influential abbeys are founded in the region (Noirlac, Chancelade, Cadouin, Rocamadour etc). Construction started on the cathedral in Bourges.

Wars between England and France

1152 Eleanor of Aquitaine marries Henry Plantagenet , bringing as her dowry all of southwest France. In 1154 Henry Plantagenet becomes King Henry II.

1190 The Quercy is ceded to the English with the exception of the abbeys of Figeac and Souillac.

1191 Richard the Lionheart dies at Châlus.

early 13C Albigensian Crusade . Simon de Montfort raids the Quercy and Périgord.

1234 Louis IX buys the Berry from the Count of Champagne.

1259 By the Treaty of Paris , St Louis cedes the Périgord and the Quercy to the English. The treaty puts an end to the constant fighting and enables the people of the region to live in peace until the Hundred Years War.

1273 Construction is started on the cathedral in Limoges.

1324 Bourges Cathedral is consecrated.

1337 French king Philip VI declares the English-held duchy of Guyenne confiscated.

1340 Edward III of England proclaims himself king of France.

1345 Beginning of the Hundred Years War in Aquitaine.

1346 Edward III defeats the French at Crécy.

1355-1370 Edward the Black Prince begins his campaign, ravaging the Berry and Limousin.

Edward defeats and captures King Jean II (Battle of Poitiers 1356).

1360 The Treaty of Brétigny cedes Aquitaine to the English as part of the ransom for Jean II’s liberty.

1369 The Quercy and Périgord are won back by the king of France (Charles V). Du Guesclin , constable of France, is active in the liberation of the Périgord.

During the period that follows the lords of the north of Périgord owe allegiance to the king of France; the lords of the south of Périgord to the English. Many regularly swap sides in unabashed support of their own interests.

1415 Henry V defeats the French at Azincourt ( Ajincourt ).

1420 Henry V of England is recognised as king of France under the Treaty of Troyes . France is divided into three parts controlled by Henry V (Normandy, Guyenne, Paris area); Philip the Good , duke of Burgundy (other parts of the area in and around Paris, Burgundy); and the Dauphin (Central France and the Languedoc).

1444 Truce of Tours (Charles VII and Henry V); the English retain Maine, the Bordelais region, parts of Artois and Picardy and most of Normandy.

1449 The French begin a campaign in Guyenne, but the people of the region are hostile to the French from years of loyalty to the English crown; Bergerac falls in 1450, Bordeaux in 1451.

1453 Defeat of John Talbot , earl of Shrewsbury, at the Battle of Castillon , which marks the end of the Hundred Years War.

1463 University of Bourges founded.

2nd half of 15-early 16C

Towns and castles are rebuilt during this period of peace.

1558 England loses Calais to the French.

Wars of Religion

1562 Massacre of Protestants at Cahors.

1572 St Bartholomew’s Day massacre (20 000 Huguenots die).

1570-90 War is declared; Bergerac and Ste-Foy-la-Grande are Huguenot bastions whereas Périgueux and Cahors support the Catholic League . Vivans , the Huguenot leader, scours the Périgord; Périgueux falls in 1575 and Domme in 1588.

1580 Cahors is taken by Henri de Navarre (Henri IV).

1589 Henri IV accedes to the throne, converts to Catholicism in 1593 and is crowned in 1594.

Under Henri IV, the County of Périgord becomes part of the royal domain.

1594-95 Croquant peasant revolt.

1598 Edict of Nantes grants Huguenots freedom of worship and places of refuge.

1607 Viscounty of Limoges comes under the French crown.

1610 Henri IV is assassinated; Louis XIII ’s reign begins.

1637 Croquants’ revolt against Louis XIII’s government and Richelieu’s taxes.

1643-1715 Louis XIV ’s reign.

1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Huguenots flee France.

18C to 20C

1743-57 Tourny , administrator of the Treasury of Bordeaux, instigates a number of town planning projects in the southwest (Allées de Tourny in Périgueux).

1763 Peace of Paris ends the French and Indian War (1754-63), marking the end of France’s colonial empire in America.

1768 Kaolin is discovered in St-Yrieix-la-Perche.

1789 Storming of the Bastille and the beginning of the French Revolution.

1790 Creation of the Dordogne département .

1792 Proclamation of the French Republic after the Battle of Valmy.

1812-14 Périgord is a Bonapartist fief; several of Napoleon’s generals and marshals (Murat, Fournier-Sarlovèze, Daumesnil) are natives of the region.

1868 Phylloxera destroys the vineyards of Cahors and Bergerac, causing a rural exodus.

Discovery of Cro-Magnon cave skeletons.

1914-18 World War I .

1940 Discovery of Lascaux Cave.

1942-1944 The French Resistance movement intensifies in the Limousin during the World War II .

1944 Massacres at Tulle and Oradour-sur-Glane.

20C Marked by a continued rural exodus, the depopulated regions live essentially from agriculture and tourism.

1963 The first Maison de la Culture opens in Bourges, an initiative of André Malraux.

1964 Limousin Région is created.

1977 Le Printemps de Bourges music festival holds its first concerts.

1994 Channel Tunnel links England and France‘s rail networks.

1995 Jacques Chirac President.

1989 The Parc Naturel Régional de la Brenne is established.

A new motorway is opened from Paris to the centre of France, via Bourges.

1999-2002 euro replaces the franc.

2000 Construction begins on the A89 motorway linking Bordeaux to Clermont-Ferrand, cheduled for completion in 2008.

2005 European Constitution rejected in referendum of French electorate.

2007 Nicolas Sarkozy elected President.

Key Historical Figures

Over the centuries, three key figures have left an indelible mark on the region, sparking the imagination and bringing to life the history of this part of France.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

In 1122, a daughter was born to William X, duke of Aquitaine and count of Poitiers, who was to become heiress to one of the largest domains in France (more extensive than that of the king’s). In 1137, Eleanor wed Louis VII , who succeeded his father to the throne just one month later. The young queen of France was beautiful and influential, though some historians have criticised her juvenile frivolity. Eleanor accompanied her husband on the Second Crusade, where her capricious enthusiasm fired Louis’ jealousy, and the marriage was annulled in 1152, shortly after their return to France. Thanks to feudal customs, she regained possession of Aquitaine, and two months later married Henry Plantagenet, count of Anjou and duke of Normandy. When her second husband became king of England (1154) as Henry II , England, Normandy and the west of France were united under one crown. In addition to her two daughters from her first marriage, Eleanor bore eight more children, including Richard the Lionheart , John Lackland, Eleanor (who married the king of Castille) and Joan (who married the king of Sicily and later the count of Toulouse). No wonder some have called her the grandmother of Europe!

Eleanor was both a political and cultural force to be reckoned with. She turned the court at Poitiers into a centre of courtly life and manners, celebrated by the troubadours; she also promoted the historical legends of Brittany, romantic songs in the Celtic tradition. She supported her sons in a failed revolt against their father; afterwards, Henry had her kept guarded under close watch in England until his death. Released at last, she became an invaluable advisor to her son Richard, keeping the kingdom intact an d administering it during his long absences. She was 80 years old when she set off across the Pyrenees to fetch her granddaughter Blanche of Castille for marriage to the son of the French king, hoping thus to cement peace between the Plantagenets and the Capetians. Her influence was felt even after her death: following the loss of Normandy (1204), her ancestral lands, and not the old Norman territories, remained loyal to England. She died in 1204 in the monastery at Fontevrault where she had retired. The nuns of Fontevrault described this exceptional queen as “beautiful and just, imposing and modest, humble and elegant”.

Jean de Berry

In the 14C, when its population was about 350 000, the Berry was plunged into the turmoil of the Hundred Years War following the Black Prince’s raids. The region had strategic importance as a potential base for the conquest of Poitou and Aquitaine. King John the Good elevated the Berry and Auvergne to the rank of duchies, and granted them to his third son; thus, in 1360, Jean de Berry came into control of at least one-third of the territory of France.

After a period of captivity in England, the young duke was in urgent need of funds. He taxed his lands heavily for the defence of the kingdom, and also spent lavishly on the arts. His military career was marked by a triumphant march on Limoges, which brought the local bourgeoisie and clergy into the Valois camp, but also led to terrible English reprisals. Pursuing his campaign with Du Guesclin and the duke of Anjou, he took control of Poitou in 1373.

Meanwhile, his brother, by then King Charles V, passed away, and his nephew, the young Charles VI , took the throne. As a member of the regency council from 1380-88, Berry shared royal powers while Charles was too young to rule. He thus gained control of the Languedoc. In conflict with the royal family, Berry also struggled against the peasants’ revolt (1381-84), which resulted from his oppressive fiscal policies and opulent lifestyle. The king, although beset by fits of insanity, announced his determination to rule alone, but soon earned the surname Charles the Mad. Still bent on power, and always ready to take advantage, Berry handled negotiations between the conflicting factions of John the Fearless, duke of Burgundy, and his own brother Louis, duke of Orléans, and even promised the English to deliver the province of Guyenne (1412). The end result was the siege of Bourges by royal troops. Berry capitulated and died four years later, at the age of 76.

Throughout his life, he showered his fortune on the arts and artists, building palaces and fine residences in his cities, so much so that at his death there was not enough in the coffers to pay for his funeral. History has recognised his importance as a supporter of the arts, and the treasures he commissioned remain as his monument: paintings, tapestries, jewellery and illuminated manuscripts, including the world-famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

Jacques Cœur

Born the son of a furrier in Bourges, Cœur’s life is exemplary of the spirit of enterprise and the rise of the merchant classes in the period of prosperity that followed the Hundred Years War. His generation was perhaps the first in Europe to aspire to honours, noble rank, wealth and property, without being born into the aristocracy. If he may be said to have represented the rise of the merchant class, his downfall signifies how difficult it was for such social changes to take root.

Gifted with an uncanny flair for business opportunities, Cœur gained the confidence of Charles VII, and became his argentier, managing the royal funds like a modern-day investment tycoon. His power and fortune grew simultaneously as he became a member of the king’s council, the tax collector for the Languedoc and the inspector general of the salt tax. He diversified his affairs, stocking all kinds of merchandise – cloth, spices, jewels, armour, wheat and salt – from around the world in his vast stores in Tours. He had a large staff of salesmen, shipowners (he himself owned seven ships) and negotiators, as well as 40 manor houses and a beautiful palace in Bourges, one of the finest examples of lay Gothic architecture in Europe. Cœur set up individual companies for each branch of trade, and sought political support from all quarters. His prosperity was held up by a delicately spun web of bills of exchange, credit, and fiscal receipts issued by the king. A creditor for many of France’s aristocrats and the king himself, Cœur was the object of intense jealousy.

His rocketing career plummeted on 31 July 1451, when he was arrested on trumped-up charges of poisoning Agnès Sorel, the king’s mistress. His enemies came forth with more accusations: currency fraud, trading arms with the infidels, returning a Christian slave to a Muslim master, running ships with slave crews, and abuse of power. Found guilty on all counts except the poisoning, he was banished, ordered to relinquish all of his goods and property, and pay an impossibly high fine for his release.

Meanwhile, French troops, paid with the confiscated funds, won the final battle of the Hundred Years War. Cœur, the financial adventurer and proto-bourgeois, escaped and fled to Italy before setting out on a Papal naval expedition against the Turks. He is believed to have died on the Aegean island of Chios in 1456. The following year, in an attempt to make amends for his father’s treatment of Cœur, King Louis XI returned his unsold property to his sons and revived some of his old companies.

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