Charcoal Production

The Grotte de Bernifal and the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume are two caves located in the Vézère Valley in the Dordogne department of France.

Image: Alain Roussot
Image: Alain Roussot

This pictograph from Bernifal represents a charcoal kiln. It may be related to the Chinese radical jīn which means metal. You need the high temperatures produced by burning charcoal in order to smelt most metals.

Image: Alain Roussot
Image: Alain Roussot

Similar pictographs can be seen at Font-de-Gaume. An example is shown on the right. The variety of structures shown in Mr Roussot’s original table of pictographs suggests that someone may have been discussing the best way to stack the logs.

Image: Capitan, L. et al.
Image: Capitan, L. et al.

Moving logs is not easy without help. This is a beautiful image of a female mammoth from Bernifal. She is assisting with logging.

Rohland et al's analysis of the DNA in woolly mammoth remains shows a relationship to the Asian elephant¹. In the Asian elephant, the female has small or no tusks. The mammoth in the image has no obvious tusks. Hence, I conclude that the mammoth is female.

There are two symbols associated with the image. The first is superimposed on the body of the mammoth. It may be related to the Chinese character lín meaning wood.

The second symbol is comprised of two yì 丿 meaning to pull or drag. I think that there may well be a link with the English verb to heave. The yì indicate movement of the trunk. So, we have the mammoth pulling or dragging something with her trunk. Two yì rather than just one tells us that this was hard work: heave, heave.

Author's Note

There is an engraving of a mule at Bernifal. A mule might have been used to take the charcoal away from the kiln. Which raises the questions: did they smelt metal, and if so, where?


Image Credits:

Charcoal Kilns: Alain Roussot, 1994: L'art préhistorique: Sud-Ouest université, Editions Sud-Ouest: Accessed: 16 December 2012.

Capitan, L., Breuil H., Peyrony D., 1903, Les figures gravées à l'époque paléolithique sur les parois de la grotte de Bernifal (Dordogne). Comptes-rendus des séances de l'année.. - Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, 47e année, No. 3, 1903, p. 219. Digital version from Don's Maps: Accessed: 18 December 2012.


1. Rohland et al, 2010: Genomic DNA Sequences from Mastodon and Woolly Mammoth Reveal Deep Speciation of Forest and Savanna Elephants: PLOS Biology: info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1000564: Accessed: 17 December 2012.