SHADOWS DANCED on the wet walls. We crouched beneath the dripping ceiling of a remote underground cavern, eyes fixed on Monsieur Lapeire as he slowly traced the outline of a horse drawn 25,000 years ago. The monsieur had led small bands of visitors through his cave many times before. Fortified by the local wine and a familiar knowledge of the labyrinth now behind us, he showed little emotion as he brought the glare of his gas lamp closer to the ancient pictures etched in stone. The rest of us watched in rapt attention, with a silence borne of the uneasiness of surrounding darkness and the amazement of sudden understanding.

One feels a special excitement confronting a prehistoric painting or drawing, not in a book or slide lecture, but on the very walls worked by earliest man himself. Indeed centuries of travelers have groped through damp and murky caverns to look upon the visible remains of the most ancient human creativity. In search of the same, my wife and I journeyed last summer through French Perigord, one of the world's richest centers of Paleolithic culture. Our maps of the area indicated so many prehistoric sites that, as we meandered south toward Toulouse, we realized we were stopping for grottos more often than for gas.

Thus one sunny afternoon we found ourselves following Monsieur Lapeire into his cave at La Mouthe, high in the hills of the Dordogne valley. The Michelin Guide had soberly warned that "the visit might be difficult because of the absence of electric illumination, the narrowness of certain passages, and a slippery terrain."

All true and all obstacles, as we found out, not to mention the somewhat obstinate Monsieur Lapeire himself. Only our most solicitous requests (and my wife's fine command of the French subjunctive) had persuaded this taciturn paysan to cut short a lingering midday repose and open the gate to the cavern beneath his wheatfield. After some grumbling, Monsieur caught the mood. The man (whose name in the regional dialect means "stone") donned beret and thick-soled slippers, and led us by his lamp to see haunting images of reindeer, bisons, and a unique representation of a prehistoric hut. Somehow such drawings wouldn't have seemed the same in a museum.

Happily, endangered paintings and drawings at many prehistoric sites have been protected as if they were in a museum. When deterioration of the Lascaux murals forced the famous cave's closing, the government took preventative measures to better preserve the most important paleolithic art of France. In the last 15 years several caves have been equipped with systems to neutralize spectators' imported carbon dioxide and microrganisms which prey upon the painted pigments. Further improvements have made the caverns generally more accessible; though Lascaux remains closed (a full-size replica will soon open), trips through nearby Les Combarelles, Font-de-Gaume and Pech Merle are now easier than ever before. In each of these caves, professional guides take you through lamp-lit passages, along guardrails and down stairs, discussing in well-rehearsed tones (always in French) details of wonderful pictures on the walls before you.

At Les Combarelles we saw horses with flowing manes, an unlucky mammoth wounded with arrows, and the only known paleolithic representation of a seated human figure--all carved with flint tools some 40,000 years ago. The grotto at Font-de-Gaume is flashier; here prehistoric beasts are not etched but painted, in red, black and brown earth colors. Among the 300 images, several display unusual skill or even emotion: a herd of thundering bison, two reindeer bent over, slender tongues gently licking each other. In some of the paintings, the wealth of detail can even surprise the viewer. Pausing before one obviously male bison, our guide, a young girl of about 17, blushed as she dutifully pointed out what she called "le sexe."

The cave at Pech Merle is larger and more exciting than Les Combarelles or Font De Gaume; it is also beautifully maintained. After watching an excellent archeological film above ground, we were taken below the earth, through gallery after gallery of eerie stalactites, stopping to see paintings of mammoths with shaggy breasts dragging, a bison fighting a horse, more human figures and a rare fish.

Pech Merle also has several examples of the curious prehistoric "air brush" genre, apparently created by artists blowing pigments through a hollow tube onto the rock wall. It's less primitive than it sounds; two life-sized dappled ponies amply display the subtlety of the technique. And in these same caverns the ghosts of Stone Age man show themselves boldly. Again and again human handprints appear on the walls, stenciled by the spray of the blow-tube method. And in one corner was visible a footprint, not petrified, of an adolescent boy. We started where he had casually pressed down his heel in the soft mud, about 12,000 years ago.

Unfortunately, the beauty and convenience of these publicly maintained caves have made them all too popular. If you travel to this part of France during the high season, you will join hundreds of other tourists (though mostly French) whose Renaults and camping caravans annually invade the villages of the Dordogne valley. Many come in quest of no more than the local truffles, bicycling or a canoe trip down the broad winding river. Nonetheless, a substantial majority seem to take at least a day or two "dans les grottes," daily admissions to which are strictly limited. That meant, as we discovered, that some days in Perigord were better spent lunching on truffles than standing in line.

But there was, as we also learned, an alternative to arriving very early to purchase entrance to a popular cave. An arbitrary turn up a tiny road, or the willingness to try the less than most famous, frequently led us to tranquil but noteworthy prehistoric sites. The detailed Guide Bleu provided several suggestions, but so did the occasional chat with local shopkeepers and police. Throughout Perigord there are caves and caves, many of which are privately maintained but publicly available, often interesting and often little traveled.

Driving through the rolling landscape of the Dordogne, my wife and I came to appreciate a leisurely stop at a small or out-of-the-way grotto. The price of admission was token and the guides were invariably amateurs; typically, these caves had only a few artistic representations on their walls. Somehow they seemed to offer a particularly personal look at prehistoric man's efforts to capture the images of nature.

After visiting La Mouthe, we understood the value of seeing a Stone Age sketch not through Plexiglas, not accompanied by a memorized narration, not methodically illuminated for the sake of a large crowd. When a cave is less like the Louvre, and more like a cave--dark, damp, and still a little sinister--one feels closer to the ancient world lurking behind the drawings on the glistening stone. The intimacy of the experience is inescapable. Each time in the dark we sensed the frustration of the prehistoric artist who worked only by the flicker of a primitive oil lamp; similarly the triumph as he captured for his engraving a particular curve of stone which became the loin of a bison or the brow of a mammoth.

And while visiting these smaller caves, we could share more closely the perceptions of other travelers stripped of the anonymity of a crowd. In the painted cavern of Cougnac, a helpful German reminded me, in his careful English, how the human silhouettes we saw were so similar to those in the galleries of nearby Pech Merle. Our visit to the minor grotto at Villars was considerably enhanced by a Spaniard's challenge about a particular depicted bull. How did our guide know, he demanded, that the outlined figure before the beast was really a sorcerer? A French couple interrupted, diverting attention to a more Gallic concern. It seemed to them, they said, that the stalagmites in this gallery looked like coquilles St. Jacques and melted glace au chocolat.

Our amateur guides added to the experience of each cave. In many cases, their familiarity with the underground passages stretched back to their childhoods. They shared with us not only their caves but, unconciously, a glimpse of their local lives. I suppose that long after I have forgotten the precise shapes of mammoths drawn in Monsieur Lapeire's cave, I will remember the wine on his breath when he laughed about the time he himself lost his way in the dark. My wife recalls the day we visited the Abri Cap Blanc, led solemnly to its splendid sculptured horses by a gray-haired lady, two dogs running before her, the long blue ribbon of her straw hat trailing behind. But I, in turn, recall that glimmer of excitement in the old lady's eyes when she pointed to the swollen stomach on one of the carved animals: "Pregnant," she exclaimed. "The mare was to have a child."

At Rouffignac there is a cave which can be visited by a small electric train. Among its hundreds of Magdelenian (15,000 B.C.) drawings, a few are so oddly positioned as to suggest that their prehistoric artists were either standing in chest-deep water or laying on their backs when they worked. Here, as in many other caves, one wonders who was supposed to see such drawings. Why, in fact, did ancient people scrape, daube or blow paint onto subterranean walls at all? "Totemistic prayers," say some scholars, "symbolic wishes for a fortunate hunt." "Nonsense," say others, "such beauty and conscious design can only mean art for art's sake." French structuralists propose more complex ideas of metaphysical sexual polarities.

The questions cannot be answered until more is known about earliest man's habits. But whatever the motives behind prehistoric art, the inquisitive will be best served by exploring the caves which hold the mystery. Those who enter such realms will not leave unaffected. Abbe Henri Breuil, the grandfather of French paleolithic studies, wrote: "When we enter a painted cave, we enter a sanctuary, where, for thousands of years sacred ceremonies have taken place." Today's visitor, by dint of his curiosity, subconciously affirms the tradition; travel in search of our human past represents its own form of initiation.