Tourists Flock to See the Cave Art of Early Man

Article excerpt

NEW YORK (NYT) -- Few places in Europe are as wild and spectacular as the Pyrenees mountains dividing France and Spain.

It was here that the early Europeans lived in large numbers, and few places have as many imprints of their presence. As long as 100,000 years ago, hunting tribes were using the web of caves along the Pyrenees foothills as shelters and sanctuaries. They left tools, carvings and paintings that tell the tale.

Yet only a few caves with wall paintings can be visited, and the objects found in the caves -- the myriad spears, carved bones, axes - - are carefully guarded in museums. But Tarascon-sur-Ariege, a village in the foothills on the French side of the Pyrenees, recently completed a 32-acre park to evoke those ancient times. It has molded a landscape of boulders and springs, studded with images of the great animals, the bison, cave bears and reindeer that once roamed here. It has also built a large underground model of a painted cave. The cave model is based on the nearby caves of Niaux, which are set in a deep gorge just a 20-minute drive away. Niaux itself, with its magnificent 12,000 B.C. paintings, is open to the public, but large parts of the cave network are off limits and groups of no more than 20 people are allowed to enter only three times a day. Hence the make-believe world of the Pyrenees Prehistoric Park at Tarascon. Interest in prehistoric art has soared in France, spurred by the discoveries of two spectacular painted caves, one near Marseilles in 1991 and another in the Ardeche valley in 1994. The park at Tarascon- sur-Ariege, which took four years to plan and two more years and $8 million to build (paid for by the regional government), has drawn more than 50,000 people this summer. Its easy learning experience and the fantasies of a wilder, simpler life have inevitably become attractive to children. "Of course we cannot know what our early ancestors thought or what gods or myths they had," said Jean Clottes, France's foremost specialist in cave art. Clottes, who was born nearby, is a passionate teacher, and it was he as head of the park's science commission who supervised its execution. …