The Age of the Reindeer beneath the cowshed. WOW!

by Sophie Cattoire

Prehistory, animal skins, mammoth hunting, cave art… how long ago that seems! … maybe because we’ve put it all to the back of our minds. A long period of amnesia, since precious little has been put down in writing to help jog our memories. Of course there were the funny-shaped flints found while ploughing the fields. We called them “thunderstones” and went on ploughing… until strange-looking craniums began to crack beneath our pickaxes. Not apes, men! ... but hardly in God’s image, in our image. And there we were, off on a voyage into Prehistory which started a hundred and fifty years ago.

In the early days, digging for skeletons and flint tools proved to be an extremely lucrative business – a veritable treasure hunt which drew a large number of antique dealers and researchers to the Périgord. It was the peasants who formed the workforce as we started whirling back to our origins.

It soon became obvious that the rock shelters had once been refuges. Where there is life there is death - and a whole array of stone and bone artefacts. But that was nothing compared with the caves which, on the odd occasion, had far more than skeletons to offer us: on their walls were drawings, paintings, testimony to the imagination of our famous ancestors, so different from us and now, all of a sudden, so strangely familiar.

These caves are indeed few and far between, but some were being discovered in the Périgord, in “peasant country”. « The Reindeer Age », right there - just beneath the cowshed! Wow! Propelled to the status of owners of major prehistoric sites, the peasants became the guardians of these precious sanctuaries. During the twentieth century these farmers, who were in danger of extinction anyway, handed over their responsibilities to the competent authorities, more capable, in theory, of assuming the duties and ensuring the safeguard of what were to become: World Heritage Sites.

However, one of them has stood his ground in the face of the authorities: he is the last of the owners and he takes pride in showing you, personally, around his very own Paleolithic painted cave. His name is Gilbert Pémendrant; he was born on June 12, 1935 in his parents’ home in Meyrals, near Les Eyzies in the Périgord Noir. A splendid farm, part of which is troglodytic, built on that very same spot where prehistoric man lived beneath the rock.

Gilbert, who has spent his life looking after his cows, which are as beautiful as aurochs, didn’t find it hard to pick up the thread where his ancestors had left off 20,000 years ago. He began scrutinizing his cave and all the “pictures” he had inherited: family portraits, “the hunt” and, already, masterpieces of abstract art.

After chatting to some of the best prehistorians of our time, who have been coming in steady numbers to enumerate the wonders of Bernifal (over the last century the number of pictures that have been registered has risen from 36 to 130), Gilbert has become familiar with the exact terms to be used when talking about these pictures from “the Magdalenian” (“The Age of the Reindeer”). The little groups of visitors who have managed to find Bernifal (“the cave that isn’t on the map”) can listen to Gilbert, telling the stories with his lovely Occitan accent - each time seemingly “for the first time”. They must wend their way through the cave in the dark but there’s always the stardust in Gilbert’s eyes!

Gilbert Pémendrant, propriétaire de la grotte de Bernifal à Meyrals, Dordogne. Photo : Vincent Lesbros / FERRASSIE TV
Gilbert Pémendrant, propriétaire de la grotte de Bernifal. Photo : Vincent Lesbros / FERRASSIE TV
Gilbert Pémendrant, propriétaire de la grotte de Bernifal à Meyrals, Dordogne. Photo : Vincent Lesbros / FERRASSIE TV
Gilbert Pémendrant, propriétaire de la grotte de Bernifal. Photo : Vincent Lesbros / FERRASSIE TV
Sophie Cattoire, Gilbert Pémendrant et
Vincent Lesbros lors du tournage du film :
Sophie Cattoire, Gilbert Pémendrant et Vincent Lesbros lors du tournage du film : LE DERNIER PAYSAN PRÉHISTORIEN. Photo : Vincent Lesbros / FERRASSIE TV

Gilbert loves his cave. He can find his way around with his eyes closed, without damaging anything. It is a fact that he and his family have kept everything just as it was the day the site was found in 1898 by Abbé Breuil. The Pémendrants have always been opposed to excavations, lighting and arrangements in any shape or form. Their preservation protocol has been their peasant instinct: protecting nature, inside and out. Bernifal is indeed in good hands.

Like everybody else who has had the privilege of visiting Bernifal, the first time I went there I fell in love with the place and the way Gilbert has of sharing it with us. On that special day out I found myself back in my wonderful childhood days, with Louise and Albin, the grandparents I had chosen for myself: two human beings who were self-sufficient and didn’t have a car or a bathroom. Their accent, their delicacy, even the way they had of not trusting anybody… it was all there, intact, in Gilbert.

So I made a promise to myself: I would gain his confidence. It took me many months - or rather, it gave me a multitude of magical moments. I revelled in the hours we spent together - when he talked about his farm, his cave… when he told me his life story and I could sense the strong and ever so simple bond he has with our distant past, our roots. His politeness, his refinement, his honesty and his dignity are a true delight; Gilbert is the perfect gentleman. He embodies everything of the best in the Périgord and following him around, as he quietly goes about his daily tasks, gives meaning to this life on earth.

I for one am in need of friends like Gilbert who give me the strength to carry on. I have wanted to share this friendship, this gentleness, with others - in a documentary. The portrait of the last peasant-cum-prehistorian in the Périgord: his name is Gilbert Pémendrant. Part of the film was shot in the dark but everywhere there is sunshine, as we go up and down, from the cowshed to the bison sanctuary and from where cave bears wallowed back to Gilbert’s den where, tucked safely away, he likes to read “L’Art des Cavernes”, the grand atlas of Paleolithic decorated caves in France which stresses the importance of Bernifal Cave:

• The cave where Abbé Breuil, who was to become the “Pope of Prehistory”, made his first list of cave paintings

• The least-known and at the same time the most emblematic of its kind: paintings, engravings and bas-reliefs can be observed from one end of the cavity to the other

• One of the few caves to have remained exactly as it was on the day it was found – absolutely undamaged

• One of the last caves where the visit is conducted by the owner: a farmer, who is 75 years old.

This 52 minute film has background music interpreted by a band of folk musicians from the Périgord; this brings the joyfulness and the touch of nostalgia that you invariably feel when you meet this amazing character.

Sophie Cattoire

auteur réalisateur

Translation into English : Valérie Saraben

View the trailere

A film shot “up on top” and “down below” - in a farm and in a cave in the Périgord Noir. A film about the magical appeal of prehistory, the sheer physical pleasure of going deep down into the underground world and discovering paintings and drawings testifying to the artistry of those human beings we once were - when mammoths were legion. The experience is indeed fascinating and extremely gratifying…. even more so when your guide is someone who is madly in love with his cave – the cave that will be cherished forever. The film is a portrayal of Gilbert Pémendrant, the owner of the seventh painted cave to be discovered in the world: Bernifal Cave in Meyrals, Dordogne.

View the trailer

FERRASSIE TV production
Une production FERRASSIE-TV
Copyright © FERRASSIE-TV mars 2011


version française version occitane version anglaise