Abri du Poisson Prehistoric Cave (c.23,000
A famous site of Franco-Cantabrian cave art, the Abri du Poisson ("Fish Rock Shelter") is famous for its prehistoric sculpture of a salmon, dating to the era of Paleolithic art (c.23,000 BCE). Fish are rarely depicted in parietal art of the Gravettian - only ten examples are known in the entire history of cave art during the Ice Age - and this particular relief sculpture is one of the oldest representations of a fish ever found. (See also the Cosquer Cave paintings for more examples of marine life.) Although human occupation of Abri Poisson dates back to the Aurignacian era, the salmon sculpture was carbon-dated to the Gravettian after analysis of the red and black pigments that were found on top of it. The dating was further confirmed by its stylistic similarities with the Venus of Laussel (23,000 BCE, Musee d'Aquitaine, Bordeaux, France). In 1979, the Abri du Poisson was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, along with the other sites and caves in the Vezere valley. To understand how the Stone Age art at the Abri du Poisson fits into the chronology of ancient culture in Europe, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
The Abri du Poisson rock shelter is located in the valley of the Gorge d'Enfer, in the valley of the Vezere River, close to Les Eyzies-de-Tayac in the Dordogne, France. It is very small in size - no more than 8 metres (26 feet) wide and 7 metres (23 feet) deep. It is one of several caves in the locality that contain prehistoric art - the others being the Cap Blanc rock shelter, Abri de la Madeleine, Les Combarelles Cave, Abri de Laussel, Font-de-Gaume Cave, Laugerie Haute Cave, La Madeleine and (to the north) Rouffignac Cave, to name but a few. Its immediate neighbours are the lesser known shelters: Arbri Lartet and the Cave of the Oreille d'Enfer, both of which are also noted for their Paleolithic art (jewellery and murals).
Excavations were first begun in the Vezere valley in 1863, by the archeologist Edouard Lartet, although Abri Poisson itself was only discovered and examined in 1892 by Paul Girod. The fish sculpture, however, was first noticed, covered in lichens, by Jean Marsan in 1912. The following year, the Abri du Poisson was made an Historic Monument, and was later excavated by the renowned French prehistorian Denis Peyrony (1869-1954), who himself succeeded in foiling an attempt (financed by Professor Carl Schuchhardt of the Berlin Anthropological Museum) to dismantle the stone carving of the salmon.
The Abri Poisson's most famous item of cave art is its 1-metre long life-size sculpture of a male salmon exhausted by spawning (hence the hook in its mouth), which is carved in low relief on the ceiling and originally enhanced in red ochre. As mentioned above, fish rarely appear in cave painting or prehistoric rock engravings, which is puzzling to many anthropologists since fishing (of salmon and pike) was an important activity during the Ice Age - a fact confirmed by the many representations of fish on items of household mobiliary art and other artifacts.
Near the fish carving, according to the French paleontologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86), the remains of a bison image are also visible, as well as a black hand stencil. The hand was not made by the normal method of spitting or blowing liquid pigment through a reed or hollowed-out bone, but by creating an outline of the hand with a paintbrush of some kind. As it was, the handprint wasn't spotted until 1975.
Also on the ceiling - and on fragments that have broken off and are now strewn on the floor - are the indistinct traces of hundreds of figurative images (reminiscent of animal silhouettes), as well as a large number of abstract signs (red and black dots and lines). Most of the figurative marks are almost impossible to decipher, except for an engraving of what appears to be female organs, now on display at the Museum of Prehistoric Culture in Les Eyzies.
For more details about French cave art, please see the following:
Castanet Engravings (c.35,000 BCE)
Cave Paintings (30,000 BCE)
des Deux-Ouvertures /Cave of Two Openings (26,500 BCE)
Cave Paintings (25,000 BCE)
Cave Hand Stencils (25,000 BCE)
Cave Art (c.24,000 BCE)
Cave (23,000 BCE)
Cave (17,500 BCE)
Cave (17,200 BCE)
d'Audoubert Cave Bison (13,500 BCE)
Trois Freres Cave (13,000 BCE)
Engravings (12,000 BCE)
For more details of cave painting and relief sculpture in the Dordogne, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE