Pech Merle is a cave which opens onto a hillside at Cabrerets in the Lot département of the Midi-Pyrénées region in France, about 35 minutes by road east of Cahors. It is the home of one of the few prehistoric cave painting sites in France which remain open to the general public.
Extending for more than a mile from the entrance are caverns the walls of which are painted with dramatic murals dating from the Gravettian culture (some 25,000 years B.C.) Some of the paintings and engravings, however, could date from the later Magdalenian era (16,000 years B.C.). This area once had a great river flowing through it, cutting underground channels which were later used by humans for shelter and eventually for mural painting.
The walls of seven of the chambers at Pech Merle have fresh, lifelike images of a woolly mammoth, spotted horses, single colour horses, bovids, reindeer, handprints, and some humans. Footprints of children, preserved in what was once clay, have been found more than half a mile underground. Within a six mile radius of the site are ten other caves with prehistoric art of the Upper Palaeolithic period, but none of these are open to the public.
During the Ice Age the caves were very probably used as places of refuge by prehistoric peoples when the area had an Arctic climate, very cold temperatures, and native animal species very different from those of the present day. It is supposed that, at some point in the past, rain and sliding earth covered the cave entrances providing an airtight seal until the 20th century. The cave at Pech Merle has been open to the public since 1926. Visiting groups are limited in size and number so as not to destroy the delicate artwork with the excessive humidity, heat and carbon dioxide produced by breathing.