Occitanie has played a central role in our understanding of prehistory, and Ariège boasts more prehistoric caves than any other department in France. Over a period of several months last year, I visited several of the ones that are open to the public. The prehistorians who were involved in the discovery or interpretation of these grottes were in many cases the same internationally renowned experts who explored even more famous caves which lie just outside my region (Lascaux, Les Eyzies and the Grotte de Chauvet, for example). They included people like Émile Cartailhac who, in 1882, took up a post at the faculty of science in Toulouse and became the first academic in France to teach prehistoric archaeology. And a young priest called Henri Breuil who, over the next 60 years, would become even more influential than Cartailhac. And more recently, Jean Clottes, the man who was called upon to assess the Grotte de Chauvet when it was rediscovered in 1994.
Caune de l’Arago and the Tautavel museum of prehistory
The village of Tautavel is a mere 20 minutes inland from the A9 just north of Perpignan. The museum is highly informative, although some visitors may find it rather dated. As for the cave, the Caune de l’Arago is the one exception on my list: you cannot go inside unless you are accepted to participate in the summer dig, an annual event which started in 1964.
To reach the cave, drive a couple of kilometres north of Tautavel to Les Gorges du Gouleyrous. Here, the Verdouble emerges from limestone cliffs a hundred metres high and forms a shallow pool roughly the size of a football pitch. This is an idyllic and popular spot for a swim (in principle this is prohibited, thus making the presence of an obligatory car park with a ticket collector rather unexpected). The Caune de l’Arago is a couple of hundred metres above the river, and although you cannot go inside, most of the cave is visible through the iron bars that protect it between each season’s dig.
Just inside the bars, a diagram shows the cave in cross-section and explains why it is of such exceptional scientific interest. The hillside curves over a lip at the cave entrance, and then the floor slopes down towards the interior before rising up again to create a bowl. This underground hollow has acted as a time trap. Over a period of 600,000 years (from 700,000 to 100,000 years ago), it captured 16 metres of sediment, and contained within the different layers are human remains, the bones of the animals they hunted and ate, the tools they made, and pollen and seeds that blew in with the wind or were carried in by humans and other creatures. Five metres of sediment remain to be excavated.
Five-hundred-and-sixty thousand years ago, a child died in this cave. In 2018, one of its milk teeth was unearthed by archaeologists, and this tooth is the oldest human remain yet found in France. But the cave owes most of its fame to Tautavel Man, the hunter in his early 20s who spent time here with his family 450,000 years ago, and parts of whose skull was dug up in 1971. A copy of the front of his skull is displayed in the museum and the original is the oldest human face discovered in Europe. More recently, objects a mere 5,000 years old have been discovered outside the entrance.
Both Tautavel Man and the child belonged to the species homo erectus which arrived in this area around a million years ago. Although they walked upright and had an anatomy not dissimilar to our own, they are not thought to be our direct ancestors. Instead, homo erectus evolved into Neanderthal man who, in Europe, became extinct after having lived alongside our own species, homo sapiens, for several thousand years. Both species lived at the Caune de l’Arago, although perhaps not at the same time because the sedimentary layers include long periods with no trace of human activity.
FOLLOW THESE LINKS TO READ OTHER SECTIONS OF THIS POST:
Prehistoric caves of Occitanie 1: Grotte d’Aurignac
Prehistoric caves of Occitanie 2: Grotte de Niaux
Prehistoric caves of Occitanie 3: Grotte de Bédeilhac
Prehistoric caves of Occitanie 4: Grotte de Gargas
Prehistoric caves of Occitanie 5: Grotte de Mas d’Azil