France's caves take us back to dramatic hunts held 17,000 years ago

I'll light this candle," the guide explains, "so you'll be able to see this as the artist did." The dim flame wavers as he crouches below a painting and holds the candle close to the wall. In the flickering light, a huge, powerful beast is revealed on the rough surface. Its nostrils flare and its beady eyes stare.

The ochre colour is as vibrant as the bison itself must have been.

We're in a narrow cave called Font-de-Gaume, near Les Eyzies in the Dordogne valley of southwest France. This is the cradle of prehistory, where 10,000 to 20,000 years ago Cro-Magnon man celebrated the world around him with cave paintings. We are visiting three different caves for a glimpse into lives lived in distant times.

In this cave, one of the last in France that contains polychrome paintings and is still open to the public, we're constantly admonished not to touch the walls or brush against the paintings. Many have deteriorated with age, and some are marred by graffiti.

It's dark and damp, but when the lights shine on a frieze, there are audible gasps of appreciation at the vitality, colours, and exact scale of the animals. Some outlines are engraved, while others make use of the rocks' curvatures to give dimensionality.

Bison, reindeer, mammoths, and little black-brown horses are depicted, along with a variety of undeciphered symbols. Some of the figures are static and others portray motion effectively. A favourite scene features two long-antlered reindeer - one licking the head of the other.

After leaving the darkness of Font-de-Gaume, we drive northward for about 45 minutes along the Vézère River to Lascaux II, a cave near Montignac. The images from Grotte de Lascaux are the classics of cave paintings - streams of ochre and black bison careening over a cave wall.

The Lascaux paintings are the earliest known examples of representational art, a mind-boggling 17,000 years old. Access to the originals is highly restricted; the cave was closed to the public in 1963 to protect the paintings from further deterioration caused by visitors' body heat and breathing.

Nearby, the French government built Lascaux II, a precise replica of two galleries of the original cave. The public can again browse the tableaux, moving along the walls to read the art like a comic strip detailing the story of a hunt.

In some places, entire sections of the walls and ceiling are teeming with stampedes of animals - stags, horses, ibexes, and long-horned bulls.

As stunning as the display is, it's difficult to forget we aren't in the original, and the visit feels somewhat stilted. I want another "real" cave to visit.

So we head for Grotte de Pech-Merle by the Lot River, the Dordogne's little sister. Winding our way south for about three hours is hardly a hardship as we wander through towns perched precipitously on hilltops - golden-stoned Turenne and the pilgrim destination of Rocamadour.

With an abundance of truffles, cuisine in the region is elevated to high levels. The menus of even small country restaurants have this luxurious ingredient prominently featured. Did prehistoric man hunt truffles as well as bison?

Abbé Breuil, who was known as an expert on Paleolithic cave art, described Pech-Merle as "the Sistine Chapel of the Lot district, one of the most beautiful monuments in Paleolithic pictorial art." Only the sound of dripping water, which created the stalactites, stalagmites, and other free-form backdrops for the paintings, breaks the cave's silence.

Friezes of horses, bisons, and mammoths in black charcoal outlines date from 16,000 years ago, and there are some red markings about 20,000 years old. A wonderful painting uses a thin outcropping of rock shaped like a horse's head to portray a spotted horse with a black mane. Human handprints outlined in black are like signatures from another time.

The cave paintings provide an ephemeral connection to the past. The memory of the bison lighted by candlelight in Font-de-Gaume almost makes me scan for thundering herds as I emerge from the cave's darkness into the sunlight of modern-day France.

© The Christian Science Monitor