Thursday, July 30, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 9. The Valley of the Dordogne

Today I learned that the Dordogne is a river! A very nice river indeed, which meanders through one of the most beautiful regions of France, so next time I come to France I am buying a canoe and will paddle down the Dordogne to the ocean. It should be fun.

Yesterday I was so tired that I misspelled several words and forgot to mention a couple of pieces of trivia. For example, I didn’t know that the Perigord is the self-proclaimed Queen of the Foie Gras (which I knew is goose liver but here is also “produced” from ducks) and the nougat (candy made with walnuts). The foie gras is excellent without doubt, but has attracted bitter criticism from animal right activists. Basically you over feed the goose or duck until their liver grows a few times its normal size. The Perigordiennes consider it a tradition, however, and everywhere you see shops and farms devoted to the raising of ducks and geese.

I also forgot to mention that I am having a great time hurling my little Fiat through the narrow roads of the Perigord, recklessly defying death around each blind curve. I am now convinced that God has not only blessed this region with incredible beauty, but everyone who enters the region gets assigned at least two guardian angels.

Today I started by getting a little lost (just what one needs to see this beautiful region), but eventually reached Les Eyzies, to visit the National Museum of Prehistory. It is a fine collection, which tracks the evolution of early Australopithecus and Hominids, and eventually explodes in detail about the Neanderthal and Cromagnon presence in France. The key to the study of the last 500,000 years are the stone tool kits used by the different Homo species, which has given rise to a beautiful series of stage names:

Homo erectus (400,000 to 200,000 years ago) had the Acheluian stone tool kit (Paleolithic), dominated by large, tear-shaped, bifacial flint. Since they are sharp all around they are not simple axes, and the current thinking is that they were blanks from which other tools could be flaked.

Homo sapiens neandertalensis (300,000 to 30, 000 years ago) had the Mousterian stone tool kit (Mesolithic), without bifacial flint, with short and stubby cores as blanks, and relatively thick and large tools.

Homo sapiens sapiens (40,000 years to present), for which the Neolithic stone kits are named, from oldest (40,000 years ago) to youngest (10,000 years ago), Aurignacean, Soloturian, and Magdalenian. I will spare you the details, but the key trend is that the tools become smaller and smaller, and the workmanship becomes finer and finer with time. The cave paintings I talked to you about yesterday are either Soloturian or Magdalenian.

A key development during the Soloturian and Magdalenian was the invention of “portable” art, that is, small ornaments in the atlatls (spear throwers) and spear shafts, and very significantly the small female figurines we have come to call “Venuses”. Characteristically these Venuses have no prominent facial features, but rather emphasize the fertility-related attributes of females, such as wide hips, large breasts, and engorged vulvas. Nobody knows what their function was, but it is easy to believe that they were representations of fertility, perhaps both in humans and in the bountiful Earth. Now, you may not know this, but I am a collector of Neolithic portable art, and now my collection has been increased by four pieces: The Venus of Sireuil (24,000 years old and found in La Dordogne), the Venus of Lespugue (25,000 years old and found in Garonne), the Venus of Eliseevitchi (17,000 years old and found in Siberia), and a beautiful small carving of a laying bison, the Bison of the Madeleine (15,000 years old and found in La Madeleine). I am a bit poorer after my shopping spree, but I am a very happy man J

At noon time I went for the long walk I had promised myself in the forests of the Perigord. They are dense forests (too many trees for my Icelandic taste), and it is easy to imagine yourself with a shotgun in the crook of your arm (you never know when a hare or pheasant may jump out of the brush), following your pig in the search of the elusive truffle (the gold of Provence). Incidentally, one of the ad spots I see everywhere is that Foie Gras, c’est la truffe de Perigord!  

The rest of the day I spent becoming acquainted with the medieval history of the area, which has a large concentrations of castles of the 12th and 13th centuries, and a large number of medieval towns, all of which vie for the title of La plus belle village de France. The towns of Serlat, Domme, La Roque Gageac, and Castelnaud la-Chapelle were particularly lovely. 

No comments: