Human Origins: Southwest France and Northern Spain

  • Examine Europe's most renowned prehistoric cave art
  • Meet with local archaeologists and paleontologists

Expedition Details

 

Trace the footsteps of early humans as we explore the cradles 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.

Trip Highlights

  • Examine the Paleolithic art of two UNESCO World Heritage–listed cave regions: France’s Vézère Valley and the northern coast of Spain.
  • Meet leading archaeologists and anthropologists for talks and private tours of cave sites.
  • Visit Castel-Merle with Isabelle Castanet, whose family has excavated the site for generations.
  • Explore Sarlat, France, and Santillana del Mar, Spain, two of Europe's best-preserved medieval villages.

Itinerary - 10 Days

Days 1 & 2 — U.S./Bordeaux, France/Vézère Valley

Depart on an overnight flight to Bordeaux. 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.
Hotel Le Centenaire or Hotel Villa Romaine (D)

Day 3 — Prehistoric Sites of the Vézère Valley

Begin the day with an introduction to Paleolithic art by one of the world’s leading experts, Christine Desdemaines-Hugon, author of Stepping Stones: A Journey Through the Ice Age Caves of the Dordognef. Then join Christine on an excursion to see the majestic sculpted frieze of horses and bison in the shelter of the cliffs at Cap Blanc, followed by a guided tour at the National Museum of Prehistory. After lunch on your own in the nearby town of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, end the day with a visit to either Font-de-Gaume, home to more than 200 polychrome paintings, or at Rouffignac Cave, known as the “cave of a hundred mammoths.”
Hotel Le Centenaire or Hotel Villa Romaine (B,D)

Day 4 — Sarlat/Lascaux II

Travel to picturesque Sarlat, whose original halftimbered, golden-stone buildings and narrow cobbled streets make it one of the best-preserved medieval towns in France. After time to explore on your own, gather for a unique “prehistoric” lunch, made with the ingredients once used by the Neanderthals. In the afternoon, 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. Meet prehistory expert Denis Tauxe for a private, behind-the-scenes visit to Lascaux II, a painstaking recreation of the two primary chambers of the original Lascaux cave, whose famous paintings have been off-limits to visitors since 1963 to prevent deterioration.
Hotel Le Centenaire or Hotel Villa Romaine (B,L,D)

Day 5 — Pech Merle/Toulouse

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 preserved in the ancient clay more than 12,000 years ago. Following lunch on your own, continue to the lively university town of Toulouse.
Grand Hotel De L'Opera (B)

Day 6 — Basque Country/Santillana del Mar, Spain

Drive southwest into France’s Basque region, stopping in a picturesque village for lunch in a traditional Basque restaurant. In the afternoon, enter the Isturitz and Oxocelhaya caves with local prehistory specialist Aude Labarge and meet with the archaeological site director, Christian Normand. Used by human beings for more than 80,000 years, these superimposed caves have yielded tens of thousands of artifacts, including flutes, sculpted reindeer horns, and whale-bone tools. Cross into Spain this afternoon and trace the Bay of Biscay to the Cantabria region. Check into our charming hotel, a manor house situated in the heart of the medieval village of Santillana del Mar.
Parador Santillana Del Mar (B,L,D)

Day 7 — Puente Viesgo Caves

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.
Parador Santillana Del Mar (B,L,D)

Day 8 — Hornos de la Peña Cave/Bilbao

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 located just a short walk from our hotel.
Hotel Miró or Hotel Carlton (B,L)

Day 9 — Atapuerca/Bilbao

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 also spent several years excavating at the Atapuerca archaeological site. Visit Atapuerca, 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.
Hotel Miró or Hotel Carlton (B,L,D)

Day 10 — Bilbao/U.S.

After breakfast, transfer to Bilbao Airport for your flight home.
(B)

National Geographic Expert

Chris Stringer

Chris StringerPaleoanthropologist 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. 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.

Chris will join the following departure:

May 29 - Jun 07, 2015

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Dates

2015
  • Apr 10 - 19, 2015
  • Apr 24 - May 03, 2015
  • May 29 - Jun 07, 2015
  • Aug 28 - Sep 06, 2015
  • Sep 04 - 13, 2015
  • Oct 02 - 11, 2015

Expedition Cost

Expedition Cost:

$6,995

Price is per person, double occupancy. For a single room, add $1,095 in 2014 and $1,280 in 2015.

International airfare to Bordeaux and return from Bilbao is not included in the expedition cost.

What To Expect

This is a moderately active trip that involves walking up to two miles a day, and several cave visits. Conditions within some caves will require guests to maneuver through small spaces, at times over wet, uneven ground (often without handrails). As a result, this expedition may not be suitable for those with a serious medical condition, claustrophobia or limited mobility.