Rouffignac is a very special cave. It reaches about eight kilometres underground with a velvety darkness and silence that feels as though I’m being drawn into a different world. It smells of dry earth – I think of the little Venus figures buried for so many centuries under the ground. The first part of the cave belonged to bears and for many hundreds of years they made pits there to hibernate and made their own drawings on the walls as they sharpened their claws. The drawings made by people are deeper in the cave, made in patches where the walls were smooth between lines of knobbly flints.
The ancient woolly mammoth is celebrated here. Drawn with an economic and flowing line, these evocative drawings give us communities of mammoths living peacefully and sociably – there are lines of animals following each other and there are meetings of groups that seem to bow to greet each other – these don’t look at all like animals that are thought of as a threat or as targets for hunters.
Similarly, there are a line of three woolly rhinoceros. There is a prehistoric joke here – above the group is an outcrop of flint and behind this, hidden from the view of the rhinoceros, is the laughing head of a horse watching them. Amazing to feel that I understand how this artist was thinking, so long ago.
Even more amazing is an area in the deepest part of the cave, where ancient water courses formed a small, domed chamber. Gradually my eyes make out a riot of imagery tumbling across this dome. Animals of all sorts of sizes and shapes, gambolling and rolling, making me dizzy! Many of these are young – the baby mammoth is a little round bundle with short, stubby legs – this is like watching new-born lambs! The playfulness and fun in the drawings feels so natural – these artists saw like I do and they enjoyed watching animals bounce and jump, just like we do. This place lives in me – was I here long ago? It is very hard to leave.
Each time I visit Rouffignac I wonder if it will let me emerge again. When I do, I feel that it has changed me.