Ancient caves: Origins of the Neanderthals: France
9 days for earlybird price of £2,999 4 September 2021
Step back in time on a journey to the key Neanderthal and Upper Palaeolithic sites of southern France between Bordeaux and Nice with Palaeolithic archaeologist and author Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes. See the oldest traces left by humankind: stone tools, art objects, cave paintings and skeletons that have changed the way we think about Neanderthals.
While their fossils were first recognised some 160 years ago, for decades nobody knew whether or not Neanderthals had any culture or complex cognitive abilities. In this tour, Rebecca shows how advances in archaeological methods, especially over the last three decades, have transformed our understanding of these ancient ancestors. Far from confined and unvarying, Neanderthal minds were focused on quality and efficiency, yet also flexible and creative. As stone artisans, carpenters and inventors of the first synthetic material, Neanderthals pioneered new technologies, and they loved through not just ice-ages but warm woodland worlds too.
Visit renowned archaeological sites, discover beautiful medieval towns and explore stunning countryside whilst enjoying deep insights into the life and development of the Neanderthals.
DAY 1: ARRIVE INTO LES EYZIES AND MEET DR REBECCA WRAGG SYKES
On arrival at Bordeaux Airport, you will be transferred to the town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil to check into Hotel Le Centenaire for three nights. The area surrounding Les Eyzies has a wealth of pre-historic sites that you will be visiting.
In the evening, meet your fellow guests and tour leader for an introductory lecture, followed by a welcome dinner. You will meet archaeologist and author Dr Rebecca Wragg Sykes, who will be accompanying you and will be giving both evening talks and informal walking seminars throughout the tour.
DAY 2: LA FERRASSIE AND THE NATIONAL PREHISTORY MUSEUM
The day starts setting the scene with a visit to the National Prehistory Museum which houses France’s largest Palaeolithic collection with over 18,000 exhibits tracing over 400 millennia of human presence.
Then onto La Ferrassie, a huge Neanderthal rock shelter, where the remains of at least nine skeletons were excavated which has helped our understanding of evidence of complex treatment of their dead. These finds included the skull referred to La Ferrassie 1, the most complete Neanderthal skull ever found and which was essential explaining various human evolution theories.
DAY 3: LE MOUSTIER, LA MADELEINE, FONT DE GAUME AND ROUFFIGNAC
Your first visit is to Le Moustier rock shelter which was the first site to give its name to a Neanderthal stone tool culture, and also contained an adolescent and new-born infant skeletons with incredible histories of discovery, loss and rediscovery during two world wars.
Then journey off-the-beaten-track to the village of La Madeleine to explore its medieval Troglodyte settlement, adjacent to the rockshelter where the first prehistoric art proving humans lived alongside extinct beasts was found, together with a 17,000 year old rich child’s burial.
In the afternoon you will visit the Font de Gaume cave with one of the finest examples of European Ice Age art and the only cave in France with polychrome paintings still open to the public.
This is followed by the UNESCO World Heritage Site Rouffignac Cave, which contains over 250 engraving and cave paintings dating back to the Upper Palaeolithic era. It is also known as The Cave of the Hundred Mammoths and has more than 8km of underground passageways, some of which are serviced by an electric train to make your exploration easier.
In the evening you will dine under a stunning rock shelter at the Restaurant de Laugerie Basse.
DAY 4: SARLAT AND THE PECHE MERLE CAVE
Today you travel south to the region of Aveyron on the edge of the rugged Massif Central. It is sparsely populated and the pace of life here is delightfully slow.
Your first stop is the medieval market town of Sarlat which has the highest density of historic and classified monuments of any town in France.
In the afternoon, you will marvel at the dramatic murals of dappled horses in the Peche Merle cave. There are depictions of many species represented and over 2km of caverns to explore. Plus, the caves are geologically fascinating in how they exhibit several million years of formation, carved out by water and displaying multiple crystalline layers.
Next door is the Amédée Lemozi museum that includes recreations of many of the other nearby caves currently closed to the public.
In the evening you will check into Hotel Les Gabarres overlooking the Lot river and a short walk from the medieval village of Saint Cirq-Lapopie perched on a nearby cliff.
DAY 5: BRUNIQUEL, CAUSSE NATIONAL PARK AND THE TARN GORGE
After breakfast travel east to the beautiful French village of Bruniquel which is listed as one of the most beautiful villages of France with medieval gateways and steep cobbled paths to explore. Nearby was the Bruniquel rockshelter, where reindeer carvings were found in the 19th century, and on the hillside is the recently discovered cave containing elaborate stalagmite rings built by early Neanderthals. While unfortunately closed to the public, Rebecca will give a special talk focusi
Then you will experience the UNESCO World Heritage site of Causse National Park and through the spectacular 50km long Tarn Gorge before staying overnight in the pretty village of Florac at the Grand Hotel Du Parc.
DAY 6: AVEN D’ORGNAC AND CHAUVET CAVES
Today you will travel East again to the Aven d’Orgnac Grand Site de France cave to marvel at the giant underground chambers with majestic crystal formations and evidence of early Neanderthals. Next door is the Cité de la Préhistoire museum which takes you through 350,000 years of their archaeology.
A short journey north is the Chauvet cave, one of the most famous prehistoric rock art sites in the world. Restrictions to protect the caves bar all but scientists and other researchers from the fragile environment of the cave. In order to meet the demand to visit the caves, a nearby $62million replica has been constructed nearby, which you will visit and learn how these caves were discovered in 1994 and hear how this beautiful early Home Sapiens art tradition relates to what we know of the last Neanderthals.
Late afternoon you journey past the famous Pont d’Arc rock arch before checking into the Hotel Le Couvent near the historic village of Vagnas.
DAY 7: GROTTE SANT MARCEL AND THE BAUME BONNE CAVE
An early start to drive south via the Grotte Sant Marcel, a vast network of underground galleries with amazing rock formations.
After a drive into the Verdon Regional Natural Park, you will visit the Baume Bonne archaeological site which bears witness to human presence for over 400,000 years. Discovered in 1946 with various evidence of Neanderthal, Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic people.
By late afternoon you will arrive into Quinson, where you can explore its prehistoric museum before checking into La Bastide de Tourtour Hotel and Spa.
DAY 8: BALZI ROSSO, GROTTE DU LAZARET, MONACO AND NICE
Today you will drive south and then along the French Riviera to the Balzi Rossi caves and museum just over the border in Italy in the village of Grimaldi. In this collection of caves, the remains of a small Upper Palaeolithic woman and, deeper in the caves, a large Cro-Magnon man were discovered (named the Grimaldi Man). Before this, Neanderthal occupied the site and used mammoth ivory for tools.
You will then return to France via the Museum of Pre-Historic Anthropology in Monaco. Established in 1902 it continues to conduct field digs in the region and run laboratory studies.
The final stop on your journey is Grotte du Lazaret, excavated for many years and which has provided rich evidence including hearths of Neanderthals or their close relatives around 160,000 years ago.
In the evening you will check into the Hotel Le Grimaldi in Nice, the capital of the French Riviera and enjoy a farewell dinner.
DAY 9: FAREWELL TO NICE
After a farewell breakfast, depart for your journey home. Transfers to Nice airport are included.
Should you wish to stay longer in Nice, our tour operating partner Intrepid Travel can arrange the accommodation for you.