Choosing rock art locations: Geological parameters and social behaviours. The example of Cussac Cave (Dordogne, France)

Publication date: May 2019

Source: Journal of Archaeological Science, Volume 105

Author(s): Armance Jouteau, Valérie Feruglio, Camille Bourdier, Hubert Camus, Catherine Ferrier, Frédéric Santos, Jacques Jaubert


Cussac Cave, discovered in 2000 in the Dordogne department of France, is one of the major decorated and sepulchral sites of the Gravettian period of the Upper Palaeolithic. It contains spectacular engravings, human remains—some of which were deposited in bear hibernation nests—and other well-preserved artefacts and traces of human and animal activity, such as human and cave bear footprints. The exceptional preservation of this cave is due to its recent discovery (followed by an extensive preservation program) and the apparent absence of human frequentation since the Gravettian period. As part of the multidisciplinary research program developed since 2008 (PCR Cussac, dir. J. Jaubert), this study aims to contribute to a better understanding of the factors—natural and/or cultural—that influenced the Gravettian people in their selection and general distribution of rock art panels in the cave. We investigate the nature of the rock support, location, surroundings, accessibility, and visibility of 31 panels. For this purpose, we developed an innovative methodology combining the data recorded in a dedicated database and on topographic documents with data processing using complex statistics (Factor Analysis for Mixed Data – FAMD). Through this work, we identified three groups of panels that reveal three ways of using the cave, two of which appear homogenous. Group 1 is characterized by small panels located in narrow passageways of the Palaeolithic path in the Downstream Branch of the cave. These panels share a strong potential for visual relationships whereas it is impossible for more than four people to see a given panel at the same time. In contrast, Group 3, also mainly located in the Downstream Branch, is composed of large panels with numerous graphic entities. These panels are always located in wide corridors and distant from the natural path, and their field of visibility is thus large enough to accommodate a small group of individuals. They also share visual relationships with other panels. Finally, Group 2 contains fewer intrinsic criteria, though all the panels are situated between the beginning of the Downstream Branch and the Upstream Branch, and they are visually isolated from each other. This study yields evidence of a strong interaction between geological and cultural factors in the selection of the rock art panels in Cussac Cave. The Gravettian people that frequented Cussac Cave linked their cultural goals to what the cave had to offer in terms of geology, geomorphology and available space. They adapted to—and even optimized—both the opportunities and constraints of the cave, thus demonstrating a strong interaction between geological and cultural parameters.