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Along the coast of Brittany, a search for our prehistoric ancestors

The Carnac stones are an exceptionally dense collection of megalithic sites around the French village of Carnac, in Brittany, consisting of alignments, dolmens, tumuli and menhirs. (iStock)
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Bigger, better and more mysterious than Stonehenge. Even older than the Egyptian pyramids. That’s what I’d been told about the so-called Carnac Alignments on the southern coast of Brittany in France. I wanted to go there, to see for myself — to touch with my own hands these ancient stone monuments, set in place as long ago as 6,500 years by the hands of my Neolithic forebears.

The best time to go is now. That’s when crowds are few, and solo visitors like me are free to wander, without charge, leisurely and reflectively, among the stones without bumping into other people. From April through September, the Carnac Alignments are so crowded with tourists that reservations for paid guided tours provide the only access.

Declared a French historic monument in 1889 and awaiting UNESCO World Heritage site designation, the huge upright stones (menhirs) stretch in regimented rows, like soldiers, as far as the eye can see. The stones are all of local granite — unlike those at Stonehenge and many other megalithic sites, where the materials were somehow hauled great distances. How such heavy stones were transported, and why, are questions at the heart of Stonehenge mysteries, but Carnac has plenty of unsolved mysteries uniquely its own.

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With almost 3,000 menhirs, the Carnac Alignments are considered the most extensive megalithic site in the world. By comparison, Stonehenge has about 100. In addition to the menhirs, the Carnac site includes ancient tombs known as dolmens — two or more upright stones topped by a horizontal capstone. In some cases, earthen burial mounds known as tumuli rise, pyramidlike, above the rocks.

Historians and archaeologists agree that the stones were erected between 4,500 to 3,500 B.C. But why are they there, and what was their purpose? Theories differ, varying from the wild to the prosaic.

On the wild side is conjecture that the symmetrical placement of the Carnac stones occurred as the result of an alien encounter of some kind. It’s even been speculated that the stones were a primitive earthquake detector. When the Carnac Alignments’ age was thought to be younger, one legend spoke of the petrified remains of a Roman legion turned to stone by the wizard Merlin.

More likely, the megaliths were created as a kind of astronomical calendar for observations of the moon and stars. This, in turn, would have helped hone newfound agricultural knowledge of when to plant and harvest. Simultaneously, perhaps the megaliths formed an outdoor temple for religious rites to honor ancestors. Or maybe there was no useful purpose at all other than artistic expression. In that case, perhaps the stones were nothing more than symbolic fencing — to keep the wild world away from humankind’s new domesticity.

That speaks to the defining feature of the Neolithic (“New Stone”) Age: No longer nomadic hunter-gatherers, people were becoming sedentary farmers. They cultivated crops, domesticated animals, created pottery … and built stone monuments. The Bronze and Iron ages would then follow, but the radical changes in human behavior and societal organization brought about in the Neolithic Age would be rivaled only by the Industrial Revolution and today’s Digital Age.

Because there’s no fixed explanation for the existence of the Carnac Alignments, visits are intrinsically interesting, more “interactive” — inviting you, a 21st-century traveler, to use your imagination. What were these Neolithic builders thinking? How did they make sense of the world around them? Is there a cognitive dissonance between then and now, as some scholars suggest, or are we and our Neolithic ancestors fundamentally the same, given our similarly large brains dependent on the same five senses? So our common humanity transcends 6,000 years of material differences?

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Beholding these gigantic, perfectly aligned stones is bound to prompt this kind of deep, introspective wonder. Much deeper, much further back in time, than tracing your bloodlines through 23andMe or Ancestry. It happens that, many generations past, at least one of my own ancestors came from Normandy, next door to Brittany. So I guess it’s theoretically possible that I am indeed a direct descendant of someone who helped build the Carnac Alignments.

For just about everyone now on Earth, Neolithic constructions such as these are where it all began, according to some philosophers and psychologists — the birth of modern consciousness. Until the fixed settlements of Neolithic times, the way human brains processed information might naturally have been less analytical, linear, reductive — and, instead, more associative, intuitive, holistic. That’s the educated guess based on archaeological evidence.

The Carnac Alignments lie in the part of Southern Brittany known as Morbihan, after the eponymous gulf that creates a kind of inland sea off the Atlantic. About 40 islands dot the gulf, one of which is an uninhabited rocky outcropping called Gavrinis. When sea levels were lower, it wasn’t an island but was connected to the mainland.

On the island is a so-called passage grave formed from granite slabs decorated with carvings. These include representations of concrete items such as axes, hornlike motifs possibly symbolizing cattle, stylized human figures, and more abstract images using zigzag lines. During the winter solstice, the sun shines directly down the passage. The island is accessible via guided boat tour.

In addition to the Neolithic sites, Morbihan beckons travelers with charming villages, beautiful beaches and plentiful, delicious oysters. The area is also known for its marine spas with thalassotherapy — using seawater, spa therapy and the salty ocean climate to enhance individual wellness.

My plans to travel there, simple enough: a direct flight to Paris, then the high-speed TGV Atlantique rail service to the small city of Vannes in Southern Brittany. The train should take not much more than a couple of hours to cover the roughly 300 miles, and it allows me to indulge in tagskryt — the climate-conscious Swedish word that means “train brag.” This will help offset my high-carbon transatlantic flygskam (“flight shame”). Only when I get to the medieval-walled city of Vannes will I rent a car, for the roughly 30-minute drive to Carnac.

I’m writing in the future tense because my trip hasn’t happened yet. Because of the latest coronavirus surge and the omicron variant, I canceled my long-planned itinerary to the Carnac Alignments. Though I’ve been vaccinated and boosted, canceling seemed the prudent thing to do. Even if I don’t get sick, I could end up stuck in confinement somewhere as airline and government rules adapt to the constantly changing viral threat.

Disappointed, yes. But do I regret devoting so much time and energy to an aborted trip that may never happen? No. Anticipation can be a trip in itself. There’s a thrilling “high” in learning about a dream destination you’ve never before been — immersing yourself in as much new detail as your brain can absorb.

Serious travelers have long understood that much of the meaning found from their sojourns comes from what is read beforehand or learned afterward. Now the Internet makes information about the most far-flung corners of the world available at the touch of one’s fingers. Aptly, the newest edition of the United Kingdom-based literary magazine Granta, known for its thoughtful essays on travel, is titled “Should We Have Stayed Home?”

To travel is to learn, and you don’t necessarily have to leave home to do it. Devoted readers of travel stories have always known this. “Armchair emancipation,” a travel editor once called it — to enjoy going places vicariously. Perhaps my Neolithic kin knew this, too: taking more pleasure in planning where they would place the huge stones than in actually doing the heavy lifting.

Nicklin is a writer based in Virginia and Maine. Find him on Twitter: @RoadTripRedux.

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PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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