At a time when Paris was nothing but a polar wasteland, uninhabitable by human or animal, there were artists at work, with remarkable skill, painting, carving, or engraving inside the limestone caves of Perigord, in southwest France. This is the kind of staggering notion that hints at the time scale faced by people of today when encountering the wonders of prehistoric art.
The efficient guide for our group of 20 in the cave of ''Font de Gaume'' put it in terms of years. ''These paintings,'' she said, tracing the black contour of a bison with the beam of her torch, ''were made 14,000 years before Christ.'' There are paintings in the Font de Gaume both older and newer than that one: they range, experts believe, from the ''Late Solutrean'' (starting 19,000 years before today) to the ''Late Magdalenian'' (about 10,000 years ago).
One would have to be astonishingly devoid of imagination not to be awestruck by the shadowy images of bison, horses, reindeer, either single, or in pairs or friezes, still visible in earth-reds, black, and ochre, on the walls of this tall, narrow cave.
Font de Gaume is just outside the small town of Les Eyzies on the River Vezere in France's ''Perigord noir' region. This town, justifiably, is known as the ''capital of prehistory'': It is in the middle of the most-explored, best-studied area for palaeolithic art in the world. Near here, also, the skulls of Cro-Magnon and Magdalenian man were discovered. Such significant evidences of primitive Homo sapiens are celebrated in the Museum of Pre-History in Les Eyzies.
But to see cave art, the first place to visit is the cave of Font de Gaume, discovered in 1901.
It takes a short while to get accustomed to looking at the paintings. The most vivid in Font de Gaume are of a group of bison recently cleaned by having a mud-skin removed. On the other hand, those exposed to the gaze (and breath) of tourists and scholars for many more years seem rather faded. But the guide pointed out that the ''primitive'' men who painted these animal images would (on their surprisingly rare visits to the cave) have seen them in the light of a flickering flame. Small, simple stone ''lamps'' have been found in some of the caves. And the shape of the paintings can actually be seen in a dim light better than in a bright one.
There is no evidence that anyone ever lived in the Font de Gaume cave. It is too humid and would have lacked light and air. Nor has evidence been found that it was used for burial. So in this cave one immediately comes up against the enigma of ''Upper Palaeolithic'' cave art: the why of it.
Our guide suggests that perhaps the cave was some kind of temple and that the artists might have been priests. ''But nobody really knows,'' she adds.
Ann Sieveking, in her lucid book ''The Cave Artists'' (1979), writes that the ''meaning'' of the animal and (much more unusual and generally crude) human figures in the caves and shelters is as much of a mystery now as it was 105 years ago when the first such cave was discovered, at Altamira in Spain. Theories abound, but the puzzled conclusion is that these images were produced, with an extraordinary degree of competence, for reasons that are far more remote from us than their purely aesthetic appeal would suggest. Their interest for us, she writes, ''still lies more in the actual paintings than in any insight they give into prehistoric beliefs.''
Standing in the Font de Gaume, straining to pick out the stance of two reindeer facing each other - one black, one red - you see them gradually emerge like forms in the night, extraordinarily lifelike, painted with a classical assurance.
''It was thought,'' our guide says (encouraged to translate a summary of her remarks into English for the benefit of non-French speakers present) ''that these deer were fighting. Now we believe they are male and female, and that one is licking the other with its tongue.''
Although to us these paintings seem the very beginnings of ''art,'' Font de Gaume is, as prehistoric cave art goes, comparatively late. The ''first primitive phase'' of Upper Palaeolithic Art, according to archaeologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan, took place at least 30,000 years ago. And he has further pointed out that ''in relation to biological time'' some ''nine-tenths of the history of mankind had unfolded when the ivory statuettes and the animals decorating the walls of caves suddenly appeared.''
Thus it can be seen that the style of cave painting, engraving and carving in relief was handed down through generations, with a strong element of formula, though continually re-instilled with vitality and naturalism.
The forms are beautiful and can be appreciated for their own sake. It is this fact that seems so stunning in the experiencing of these ancient images. Photographs, and even the delightful watercolors by Abbe Henri Breuil (l877-l96 l; for many years the world authority on cave art), still sold as post cards in every tourist shop in the area, convey little of their impact at firsthand.
Over 125 caves are known to exist in Perigord, containing prehistoric art of some form. Most were found to contain miniature, movable art pieces. Of the other 57 caves, seven are sculptured, 12 painted, and the rest engraved. There are, experts reckon, about 15 decorated caves of major importance in this part of France (the Pyrenees and northwest Spain are other areas where cave art has been found in some density to date).
Also within reach of Les Eyzies, the following caves are open to tourists and are particularly recommended:
* Les Combarelles Cave for its engraved drawings.
* Rouffignac Cave, in which a miniature railway carries visitors to see recently discovered paintings and engravings located from 300 to 800 meters from the entrance.
* Cap-Blanc rock shelter for its bison and frieze of horses carved in high relief.
* And farther away in the Lot valley, the caves of Pech-Merle and Cougnac, both stylistically earlier and both remarkable. Pech-Merle has some notably impressive paintings of mammoths.
In several of these caves can be seen the subtle ways in which the prehistoric artist (and he must have been a ''specialist,'' not just any member of the nomadic groups he belonged to) made the natural contours of the rock cooperate with his intention to produce animal-images, allowing his imagination to be stimulated by the rock formations on the cave walls. The tail of a deer coincides, for example, with a tail-like projection in the rock face. And one of the last paintings seen on the 40-minute tour of Font de Gaume is an astonishingly shaped bison nestled in a naturally formed concavity.
The most famous of all the Perigord caves is, of course, Lascaux. Many consider it also to be the most beautiful. Found by chance during World War II, opened to the public in the late '40s, this small cave had to be permanently closed to the public 20 years ago. It became urgently necessary to save its paintings from the damaging changes of temperature and humidity brought on by the influx of visitors. Now only six people a day are allowed to enter Lascaux. In the last year, however, a clever replica of part of the cave has been finished and opened. One Perigourdin I spoke to, who has visited the real Lascaux caves many times, assured me of the replica's excellence. Certainly it seems very convincing, and apparently is scrupulously accurate. At least it offers an admirable impression of the astonishing boldness and vitality of the decorations that made Lascaux so well-known, and with interest aroused by the real thing at Font de Gaume, a great deal can be learned here, too, about the skills and ingenuity of prehistoric artists.
Not very far from Les Eyzies, ''Lascaux II'' as it has been dubbed, is well worth a visit. But no replica could re-create the extraordinary sense of facing an actual painting brushed, touched, or sprayed onto the irregular undulations of a cave by one of those bafflingly early, bafflingly distant makers of art.