October 6 – 14, 2018
Trace the footsteps of early humans as we explore the cradle of civilization in southwest France and on Spain’s northern coast. On an expedition designed with paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, examine carvings and cave paintings that illustrate life up to 40,000 years ago. From the Dordogne to Basque Country, stay in beautiful medieval towns that dot these long-inhabited landscapes.
Paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer has worked at the Natural History Museum London since 1973, where he now leads research in Human Origins. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society and a National Geographic grantee. Chris’s early research was on the relationship of Neanderthals and early modern humans in Europe. Through his work on the “Recent African Origin” model for modern human origins, he now collaborates with archaeologists, dating specialists, and geneticists in attempting to reconstruct the evolution of modern humans globally. He has excavated at sites in Britain and abroad, and is currently leading the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project in its third phase (AHOB3). He has published more than 250 scientific papers, and his recent books include Homo Britannicus: The Incredible Story of Human Life in Britain, The Complete World of Human Evolution (with Peter Andrews), and Lone Survivors.
Arrive in Bordeaux and journey to the beautiful Dordogne region—still commonly known by its pre-Revolutionary name, Périgord. Here, rivers have carved up the limestone landscape, leaving cliffs and caves where humans have built their homes for tens of thousands of years. Settle into your country hotel in the Vézère Valley, and gather this evening for a welcome reception and dinner.
Set out with Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, one of the world’s leading experts on Paleolithic art and author of Stepping Stones: A Journey Through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordogne, for a guided tour of the National Museum of Prehistory. After lunch on your own in the nearby town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, continue with a visit to Font-de-Gaume, home to more than 200 polychrome paintings. End the day in picturesque Sarlat-la-Canéda, whose original half-timbered, golden-stone buildings and narrow, cobbled streets make it one of the best preserved medieval towns in France. Return to the hotel for dinner.
Accompanied by Christine Desdemain-Hugon, depart for Rouffignac Cave, known as the “cave of a hundred mammoths.” Then join archaeologist Isabelle Castanet for a visit to Castel-Merle, a complex of prehistoric stone shelters more than 300 feet long, excavated and preserved by several generations of the Castanet family. Gather for a unique “prehistoric” meal made with the ingredients once used by Neanderthals. On a specially arranged visit of the International Center for Cave Art meet Lascaux expert Sandrine Géraud, a research technician and conservationist at the site. The Center was opened in December, 2016 and houses Lascaux IV, the most complete re-creation of the original Lascaux Cave system, whose famous paintings have been off-limits to visitors since 1963 to prevent deterioration. A team of scientists, technicians and artists have painstakingly recreated the hundreds of paintings and engravings in great detail utilizing cutting-edge laser imaging and 3D-printing technology.
This morning, venture into the spectacular natural galleries of Pech Merle, an enormous cave system filled with prehistoric art and artifacts dating back 25,000 years. See rare representations of human figures, engraved or spotted animals, and a mammoth drawn using the natural contours of the rock. The cave floor displays children’s footprints set in the ancient clay more than 12,000 years ago. Following lunch on your own, continue to the lively university town of Toulouse.
Drive southwest into France’s Basque region, stopping in a picturesque village for lunch. In the afternoon, enter the Isturitz and Oxocelhaya caves with a prehistory specialist. Used by humans for more than 80,000 years, these superimposed caves have yielded tens of thousands of artifacts, including flutes, sculpted reindeer horns, and whalebone tools. Cross into Spain this afternoon and trace the Bay of Biscay to the Cantabria region. Check in to our charming hotel, a manor house situated in the heart of the medieval village of Santillana del Mar.
Come face-to-face with some of the oldest artistic representations in human history on a visit to the caves at Puente Viesgo, part of the Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain World Heritage site. Recently identified as the oldest cave artwork in the world, the paintings in El Castillo Cave date back at least 40,800 years. Explore the nearby Las Monedas Cave—the longest in Puente Viesgo—and later, delve deeper into the prehistory of the region on a visit to the Altamira Museum.
Continue our exploration of Cantabria’s World Heritage–listed caves at Hornos de la Peña. Here, large-scale naturalistic engravings depict horses, bison, aurochs, goats, and other animals, as well as an unusual anthropomorphic figure with a human-like arm and a tail. After lunch at a local restaurant, transfer to Bilbao, the largest city in Spain’s autonomous Basque country. Explore the city on your own this afternoon, and if you wish, stop in at the world-famous Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry and located just a short walk from our hotel.
Today we are joined by renowned archaeologist Dr. Ana Cristina Pinto-Llona, an expert on the origins of modern humans. Ana is a two-time National Geographic grant recipient for her work in the Asturias region of northern Spain, and she also spent several years excavating at the Atapuerca archaeological site. Visit Atapuerca, near the town of Burgos, where the oldest known hominin fossil remains in Europe have been unearthed. Return to Bilbao and celebrate your prehistoric adventure at a festive farewell dinner.
After breakfast, transfer to Bilbao Airport for your flight home.
Hostellerie La Roseraie or Hôtel Le Centenaire
Grand Hôtel De L’Opéra