'Capital of pre-history' brings everyday life in the Ice Age back from the dead

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The bison turning its head to lick its flank, carved with extraordinary precision from a reindeer antler, might have been made yesterday. Even the animal's tongue, a couple of millimetres long, is visible.

The bison turning its head to lick its flank, carved with extraordinary precision from a reindeer antler, might have been made yesterday. Even the animal's tongue, a couple of millimetres long, is visible.

The mint-fresh small carving, among the most celebrated and startlingly beautiful examples of palaeolithic art, was made 12,000 years ago. Since its discovery in the Dordogne, in south-west France, it has rarely been seen in public. It went on permanent, public display this month for the first time.

The bison se léchant is among 18,000 objects - many never shown before - in France's Museum of Pre-history, which opened this month in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, in the Dordogne. The museum, 20 years in the planning, arguing and making, is a triumph. It is attracting more visitors than can be comfortably handled in the village which calls itself, with some justification, the "capital of pre-history".

In Les Eyzies, the Frenchman Edouard Lartet and the Englishman Henry Christy made the discoveries from 1863 that proved beyond doubt the existence of distant ancestors of humanity, from many centuries before the earliest Biblical times.

In 1868, near the Les Eyzies railway station, human remains were found in a cave called Cro-Magnon ("the cave of M. Magnon"), which gave its name to the earliest known period of Homo sapiens' residence in Europe. The last traces of the "Neanderthal" cousins of humanity, interbred with or wiped out by Homo sapiens 30,000 years ago, were also found near here. Just down the road are the famous Lascaux cave paintings, an 80m-long, four-sided frieze, densely packed with animal images; they were found in 1940. A couple of kilometres away is the Madeleine site, where the carved bison was; it lends its name to the "Magdelanian" period 18,000 years ago which produced an explosion of primitive (and not so primitive) art.

The "licking bison" has spent most of the past century locked away, appearing only for occasional exhibitions. The pre-history museum at Les Eyzies has made a policy decision to show original artefacts, rather than copies, wherever possible.

The bison, and a similarly delicate carving of a hyena from the same site, have been painstakingly restored and reluctantly given up by the Saint-German museum to return to their original home. The Musée National de Pre-histoire replaces a small, cluttered museum, in a ruined château clinging to the cliff-sides at Les Eyzies in 1913. The museum, designed by the Italian-born French architect, Jean-Pierre Buffi, is glued to the cliffs in which Magdelanian Man lived.

Or not quite glued. The building, made from large blocks of local sandstone and vaguely resembling an Aztec temple, has one side with large, picture windows a couple of feet from the cliff. Light reflects eerily, and beautifully, from the cliff-side, giving visitors the impression, as they climb the floors, that they are ascending the strata of pre-human and early human history.

The museum sketches the human story from the earliest times in Africa 3,500,000 years ago but concentrates on the relatively "recent" history of the people who crowded into the Périgord region of France from 20,000 years ago.

The museum has three startlingly life-like "recreations" of our ancestors, a Kenyan hominid boy from 1,800,000 years ago, a Neanderthal father and son and a Cro-Magnon hunter. All have been created from actual skeletons, using the techniques used by police scientists to try to identify more recent human remains. The Neanderthal father and son look disturbingly modern; so does the Cro-Magnon hunter, with his fetching animal-skin trousers (copied from cave paintings).

Another exhibit cuts through the millennia to remind visitors that our distant ancestors shared many of the emotions and customs we assume to be "modern". The burial chamber of a three-year-old girl was found to include hundreds of seashell buttons, displayed here in gleaming rows. The buttons once covered the garment in which she was buried: proving the child was either from a high, social caste or much loved, and probably both.

Why should the Dordogne be so richly endowed with pre-historical sites? Was this area colonised especially heavily by early man or have the remains survived better here than elsewhere? It is a little of both, Alain Turq, the deputy curator of the museum says. "There was abundant water here, abundant flint for tools, abundant game. When the ice ages made the areas further north inhospitable, including northern France, Germany and Britain, it appears that animals migrated here and the early men, of course, followed the animals." The Dordogne is still being colonised, by Britons fleeing inhospitable weather.

M. Turq says the museum is a research tool for the expert, and a public voyage of discovery through time. One 13-year-old French boy called David wrote in the visitors' book: "My history teacher told us you can't go back in time. You have proved you can."