Parc de la Prehistoire - Connecting with our past in Tarascon-sur-Ariege

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Tuesday 11 November 2014

Parc de la Prehistoire - Connecting with our past in Tarascon-sur-Ariege

Since leaving our busy, commuter lives behind we have been increasingly fascinated by the pleasure we derive from just taking the time to learn about the world, get closer to nature and realise just how little you need to be happy. Being outdoors, hiking, cycling and taking time to just be in nature is all part of it, getting closer to our natural instincts. So we were very excited to discover that the region we have based ourselves in to relax for a couple of weeks contains a massive amount of prehistoric remains and cave art from more than 10000 years ago, giving us a great chance to learn more about just how humans developed and how our ancestors might have lived.

On Tuesday we visited the Parc de la Prehistoire just outside of Tarascon-sur-Ariege, a fantastic facility that tells the story of prehistoric settlers in this part of France who left traces of their settlements in the hills and caves. To be honest, initially I was a little sceptical about the visit, having found some French museums to be poorly setup for anybody who doesn't speak fluent French. However, my fears were completely unfounded as this museum even included multi language audio guides and we had a fantastic time and the visit filled our whole day. 

Starting off in the museum building itself, the guide traces a route that tells the story of local settlers tens of thousands of years ago. Much of the archaeological evidence for what is known comes from nearby caves where cave art has been discovered giving a window on their long lost culture. Much of the content focuses on the incredible drawings that have been found kilometres deep inside the mountain. It was truly mind bending to realise that these early settlers, physically the same as us, would walk so far into the pitch black caves using just simple lamps solely to draw and maybe other ceremonies that can only be speculated about as the culture is completely lost. They didn't live in there or need to go for any other reason. It was actually very moving to contemplate. 

During our visit to the museum we also enjoyed the current exhibition on the Giants of the Ice Age focusing on several of the giant mammals that would have coexisted with the early settlers. The scale models and especially the mammoth skeleton were breathtaking and almost left us with a sadness that such beautiful, enormous animals had been lost as the ice retreated north, relatively not that long ago. Apparently there were still mammoths walking the earth in what is now Russia when the first pyramids were being built in Egypt!

Heading outdoors after lunch , the rest of the 13 hectare park is set up with outdoor exhibits and workshops where we got to watch ancient tools and fire making, try our hand at cave painting (Esther was definitely better at woolly mammoths) and even spear throwing (where Esther also put me to shame, good job we don't eat meat is all I can say). All of the staff were very well informed and made a special effort to translate where we needed help. There was even a archaeological dig workshop which introduces you to the complexity of how the evidence has been collected. It really was a great experience all round.

Leaving the park in the late afternoon we felt full of appreciation for the ingenuity of the early European settlers and excited to try and learn more about the evolution of modern man. We'd also booked on a visit to actually see some of the cave paintings at the Niaux caves, one of the few places you can still visit the original drawings just a few kilometres away. Having arrived in Tarascon-sur-Ariege with no fixed plans, we felt very lucky to have found so much history right on our doorstep. 

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