Having a basic understanding of the timeline is a useful reference for visiting the prehistoric sites in the Vezere valley (and anywhere else): it can allget terribly confusing. It’s best to forget terms such as Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon as these are rather arbitrary terms that were used before somany sites were discovered.
Several guidebooks (notably the Michelin Guide to the Dordogne area…the French version covers a different area from the English version) have good summaries, and there is a very useful timeline on the reverse of the map of the National Museum of Prehistory. The years are also all BP (Before Present, i.e. 1950) rather than BC, for convenience. Note that a number of eras overlap. [Note that the dates given in some editions of the Michelin guide are wrong]
Lower Palaeolithic [2,000,000 to ~100,000]
Acheulian (600,000 to 100,000)
Mousterien (250,000 to 40,000)
Middle Palaeolithic [~100,000 to 40,000]
Upper Palaeolithic [40,000 to 12,500]
Chatelperronian (40,000 to 34,000)
Aurignacian (34,000 to 28,000)
Gravettian (28,000 to 22,000)
Salutrean (22,000 to 19,000)
Magdalenian (19,000 to 12,000)
Note that except for the Chatelperronian period, most of the Middle Palaeolithic era coincided with a mini Ice Age. The temperatures in the area would have been similar to those in northern Scandinavia today.
Mesolithic [12,500 to 7,500]
Neolithic [7,500 to 4,300]
Protohistoric [4,300 to 2,000]
From the Mesolithic period onwards, the termperatures increased to the current levels, so the landscape has remained largely unchanged since then.
At the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, this timeline is presented through the “threads of time” wall panel and the chronlogical arrangement of the displays on the first floor (second floor for Americans). Each section on the first floor is clearly labelled.
The prehistory of the Vezere Valley is one of the great treasures in France, if not Europe, but it is important not to expect everwhere to be like the spectacular art gallery of Lascaux. The reason Lascaux is so famous is simply because of its uniqueness. Although there are almost one hundred sites in the Vezere and surrounding valleys, many are small in size or have little obvious to see. In addition, the artistic flair of the Madelenian period is impressive because it was in the early stages of man’s artistic development. Before this time, the art was much more limited and has a lot less general appeal. The older art at L’Abris de Pataud, for example, is represented by a few very small sculptures and scratched rocks. Other sites have been excavated and then returned to their natural state, as at l’Abris de Cro-Magnon. Just don’t expect a succession of sites like Lascaux: there really is only one Lascaux. Well, only two of them, now there is a facsimile site at Lascaux II.
The Vezere Valley has seen the development of a whole industry devoted to prehistoric civilizations with varying degrees of either educational or entertainment value, from excellent visitor centres at Le Thot to Palaeolithic theme parks. In a sense, there is something for everyone.