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31 July 2004
Museum of prehistory opened in Dordogne

France's Museum of Prehistory opened this month in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, in the Dordogne. The museum, 20 years in the planning, arguing and making, is a triumph. It is attracting more visitors than can be comfortably handled in the village which calls itself, with some justification, the "capital of pre-history".
     In 1868, near the Les Eyzies railway station, human remains were found in a cave called Cro-Magnon ("the cave of M. Magnon"), which gave its name to the earliest known period of Homo sapiens' residence in Europe. The last traces of the "Neanderthal" cousins of humanity, interbred with or wiped out by Homo sapiens 30,000 years ago, were also found near here. Just down the road are the famous Lascaux cave paintings, an 80m-long, four-sided frieze, densely packed with animal images; they were found in 1940. A couple of kilometres away is the Madeleine site; it lends its name to the "Magdelanian" period 18,000 years ago which produced an explosion of primitive (and not so primitive) art.
     The pre-history museum at Les Eyzies has made a policy decision to show original artefacts, rather than copies, wherever possible. The museum sketches the human story from the earliest times in Africa 3,500,000 years ago but concentrates on the relatively "recent" history of the people who crowded into the Périgord region of France from 20,000 years ago. The museum has three startlingly life-like "recreations" of our ancestors, a Kenyan hominid boy from 1,800,000 years ago, a Neanderthal father and son and a Cro-Magnon hunter. All have been created from actual skeletons, using the techniques used by police scientists to try to identify more recent human remains.
     Why should the Dordogne be so richly endowed with pre-historical sites? Was this area colonised especially heavily by early man or have the remains survived better here than elsewhere? It is a little of both, Alain Turq, the deputy curator of the museum says. "There was abundant water here, abundant flint for tools, abundant game. When the ice ages made the areas further north inhospitable, including northern France, Germany and Britain, it appears that animals migrated here and the early men, of course, followed the animals."

Source: The Independent (31 July 2004)

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