CHAUVET CAVE

CHAUVET CAVE

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Chauvet cave lions
On Christmas Eve, 1994, three spelunkers---Jean-Marie Chauvet and his friends Elitte Brune and Christian Hillaire---made one of the greatest archaeological discoveries ever inside a cave near Pont-d'Arc in the Ardéche region of southern France, an area popular with cavers. The cave is officially named Chauvet-Pont d’Arc. [Source: Jean Clottes, National Geographic, August 2001]

What the spelunkers found was Chauvet Cave, named after one of its discoverers."Tears were running down my cheeks," Jean Clottes, France foremost expert on cave art, said of his first glimpse of the paintings. "I was witnessing one of the world's greatest masterpieces...I was so overcome...It was like going into an attic and finding a da Vinci. except that the great master was unknown."

Chauvet Cave is regarded as more impressive and beautiful than Lascaux cave by people who have seen both. Chauvet contains stone engravings and paintings with 420 animal figures. Some paintings are 35,000 years old paintings, some of the oldest cave paintings known to science. The images are almost twice as old and more than twice as large as the images in Lascaux and Altamira.

According to UNESCO: “Located in a limestone plateau of the Ardèche River in southern France, the property contains the earliest-known and best-preserved figurative drawings in the world, dating back as early as the Aurignacian period (30,000–32,000 BP), making it an exceptional testimony of prehistoric art. The cave was closed off by a rock fall approximately 20,000 years BP and remained sealed until its discovery in 1994, which helped to keep it in pristine condition. Over 1,000 images have so far been inventoried on its walls, combining a variety of anthropomorphic and animal motifs. Of exceptional aesthetic quality, they demonstrate a range of techniques including the skilful use of shading, combinations of paint and engraving, anatomical precision, three-dimensionality and movement. They include several dangerous animal species difficult to observe at that time, such as mammoth, bear, cave lion, rhino, bison and auroch, as well as 4,000 inventoried remains of prehistoric fauna and a variety of human footprints. [Source: UNESCO *=*]

Websites and Resources on Prehistoric Art: Chauvet Cave Paintings archeologie.culture.fr/chauvet ; Cave of Lascaux archeologie.culture.fr/lascaux/en; Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) africanrockart.org; Bradshaw Foundation bradshawfoundation.com; Australian and Asian Palaeoanthropology, by Peter Brown peterbrown-palaeoanthropology.net Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program humanorigins.si.edu ; Institute of Human Origins iho.asu.edu ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site becominghuman.org ; Talk Origins Index talkorigins.org/origins ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History amnh.org/exhibitions ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Evolution of Modern Humans anthro.palomar.edu ; Human Evolution Images evolution-textbook.org; Hominin Species talkorigins.org ; Paleoanthropology Links talkorigins.org ; Britannica Human Evolution britannica.com ; Human Evolution handprint.com ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations genographic.nationalgeographic.com ; Humin Origins Washington State University wsu.edu/gened/learn-modules ; University of California Museum of Anthropology ucmp.berkeley.edu; BBC The evolution of man" bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ArchaeologyInfo.com ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life ; PBS Evolution: Humans pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS pbs.org/wgbh/aso/tryit/evolution; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog johnhawks.net/ ; New Scientist: Human Evolution newscientist.com/article-topic/human-evolution;

Websites and Resources on Neanderthals: Wikipedia: Neanderthals Wikipedia ; Neanderthals Study Guide thoughtco.com ; Neandertals on Trial, from PBS pbs.org/wgbh/nova; The Neanderthal Museum neanderthal.de/en/ ; The Neanderthal Flute, by Bob Fink greenwych.ca. . Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society paleoanthro.org; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization) iho.asu.edu/; The Leakey Foundation leakeyfoundation.org; The Stone Age Institute stoneageinstitute.org; The Bradshaw Foundation bradshawfoundation.com ; Turkana Basin Institute turkanabasin.org; Koobi Fora Research Project kfrp.com; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa maropeng.co.za ; Blombus Cave Project web.archive.org/web; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution journals.elsevier.com/; American Journal of Physical Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Evolutionary Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Comptes Rendus Palevol journals.elsevier.com/ ; PaleoAnthropology paleoanthro.org.

Books: “Cave Art” by Jean Clottes (Phaidon, 2008); “The Cave Painters” by Gregory Curtis (2006), with interesting insights offer by a non-specialist; “The Nature of Paleolithic Art” by R. Dale Guthrie (2005); “Images of the Past” by Douglas I. Price and Gary M. Feinman (McGraw-Hill, 2006); “The Human Past: World Prehistory & the Development of Human Societies’ edited by Chris Scarre (Thames & Hudson, 2005); “The Dawn of European Art: An Introduction to Palaeolithic Cave Painting” by André Leroi-Gourhan (Cambridge University Press, 1982); “The Origin of Modern Humans” by Roger Lewin (Scientific American Library, 1993).

Layout and Contents of Chauvet Cave


Chauvet Cave location

Chauvet Cave is five times larger than Lascaux cave. According to UNESCO: “The decorated cave of Pont d’Arc, known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc is located in a limestone plateau of the meandering Ardèche River in southern France, and extends to an area of approximately 8,500 square meters. [Source: UNESCO *=*]

The Chauvet Cave cave complex consists a string of chambers that are 570 meters long and a connecting gallery and three vestibules. The largest chamber is 70 meters long and 40 meters wide. The distance between the entrance and the furthest images are about 250 meters. At the northern end the cave forks into two horn-shaped branches. In the chambers where the art is found the ceiling varies in height from about 1½ meter to 13 meters. There are some passages that require adults to kneel or crawl.

Jean Clottes wrote in for The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The cave is extensive, about 400 meters long, with vast chambers. The floor of the cave is littered with archaeological and palaeontological remains, including the skulls and bones of cave bears, which hibernated there, along with the skulls of an ibex and two wolves. The cave bears also left innumerable scratches on the walls and footprints on the ground. [Source: Jean Clottes, Independent Scholar. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, metmuseum.org, October 2002 \^/]

“The two major parts of the cave were used in different ways by artists. In the first part, a majority of images are red, with few black or engraved ones. In the second part, the animals are mostly black, with far fewer engravings and red figures. Obvious concentrations of images occur in certain places. The most spectacular images are the Horse Panel and the Panel of Lions and Rhinoceroses. \^/

Zach Zorich wrote in Archaeology magazine, “The primary residents were a now-extinct species of bear and that feces and rotting carcasses of bears that died while hibernating---in addition to smoke from torches and fires lit by the artists---would have made up the atmosphere. More than 190 cave bear skulls have been found in Chauvet Cave. One was placed at the edge of a large stone block. Why remains a mystery. Some of the paintings in Chauvet Cave incorporate claw marks left by bears, making the art an interspecies collaboration. [Source: Zach Zorich, Archaeology magazine, March/April 2011]

Dating the Art in Chauvet Cave

“After the cave paintings were discovered in December 1994," Zorich wrote, " the first question archaeologists faced was, how old are they? At first glance, the paintings' technical sophistication made them seem relatively recent, perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 years old. Radiocarbon dating of the charcoal in the black pigments, however, showed that the earliest paintings in the cave were made 35,000 years ago. The date overturned the idea that Europe's earliest cave paintings were crude and simple and that artistic techniques had to be refined over thousands of years before the finest cave art could be made. More than 80 radiocarbon dates have been taken from the torch marks and paintings on the walls, as well as the animal bones and charcoal that litter the floor, providing a detailed chronology of the cave. The dates show that the artwork was made in two separate periods, one 35,000 and one 30,000 years ago. [Source: Zach Zorich, Archaeology magazine, March/April 2011]

Jean Clottes wrote in for The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Thirty radiocarbon datings made in the cave have shown that it was frequented at two different periods. Most of the images were drawn during the first period, between 30,000 and 32,000 BP in radiocarbon years. Some people came back between 25,000 to 27,000 and left torch marks and charcoal on the ground. Some human footprints belonging to a child may date back to the second period. [Source: Jean Clottes, Independent Scholar. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, metmuseum.org, October 2002]

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Arguments for the accuracy of the dating got a boost” in 2011 “when Jean-Marc Elalouf at the Institute of Biology and Technology in Saclay, France, conducted DNA studies and radiocarbon dating of the remains of cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) that ventured inside the grotto to hibernate during the long ice age winters. Elalouf determined that the cave bear skeletal remains were between 37,000 and 29,000 years old. Humans and bears entered the cave on a regular basis—though never together—before the rock fall. “Then, 29,000 years ago, after the rock slide, they couldn’t get inside anymore,” says Clottes.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015]

Chauvet Cave has a cool, damp climate with temperatures at a constant 56̊F and a humidity level of 99 percent. These conditions account for its remarkable state of preservation. It appears that only a bears entered the cave between the time the last paintings were created and the time the cave was rediscovered in the 1990s.


Chauvet hands


Why Chauvet Cave is So Great

According to UNESCO: Chauvet Cave “contains the best-preserved expressions of artistic creation of the Aurignacian people, constituting an exceptional testimony of prehistoric cave art. In addition to the anthropomorphic depictions, the zoomorphic drawings illustrate an unusual selection of animals, which were difficult to observe or approach at the time. Some of these are uniquely illustrated in Grotte Chauvet. As a result of the extremely stable interior climate over millennia, as well as the absence of natural damaging processes, the drawings and paintings have been preserved in a pristine state of conservation and in exceptional completeness. [Source: UNESCO *=*]

Chauvet Cave is important because: 1) it “contains the first known expressions of human artistic genius and more than 1,000 drawings of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic motifs of exceptional aesthetic quality have been inventoried. These form a remarkable expression of early human artistic creation of grand excellence and variety, both in motifs and in techniques. The artistic quality is underlined by the skilful use of colours, combinations of paint and engravings, the precision in anatomical representation and the ability to give an impression of volumes and movements. *=*

2) “The cave bears a unique and exceptionally well-preserved testimony to the cultural and artistic tradition of the Aurignacian people and to the early development of creative human activity in general. The cave’s seclusion for more than 20 millennia has transmitted an unparalleled testimony of early Aurignacian art, free of post-Aurignacian human intervention or disturbances. The archaeological and paleontological evidence in the cave illustrates like no other cave of the Early Upper Palaeolithic period, the frequentation of caves for cultural and ritual practices.” *=*

Artistry at in Chauvet Cave

The images in Chauvet Cave turned many interpretations about early man art on its head, especially those that viewed art history as a Darwinian progression from the primitive to the advanced: many of the works at Chavet are more sophisticated than works that appeared more than 10,000 years later.

The paintings are drawn with yellow ocher, charcoal and iron oxide and show the use of shading and perspective. Some even incorporate dots like Seurat-style pointillism. One of the chambers has only red paintings and another has only murals drawn in black. Connecting the large chambers are smaller chambers, roughly four by five meters. The engravings vary in size from 80 centimeters to four meters across.


Lion's group


"There is sense of rhythm and texture that is truly remarkable," French cultural official Jean Béghain told Time magazine. One of the more than 50 rhinos some are shaded with black charcoal to express rudimentary perspective and others look like action-depicting multiple exposure photographs. A couple of hunched over spotted hyenas are shown standing over one another. The artists incorporated natural cracks in the cave in the horns on an ibex.

Gilles Tosello of the University of Toulouse carefully photographed the paintings, added sketches that showed different layers of work and put it in all in a computer for analysis. Describing some details in a group of horses he wrote in his book Chauvet Cave : “Once again, the surface was carefully scraped beneath the throat, which suggests to us a moment of reflection, or perhaps doubt...the last horse is unquestionably the most successful of the group, perhaps because the artist is by now certain of his or her inspiration. This forth horse was produced using a complex technique: the main lines were drawn with charcoal; the infill, colored sepia and brown, is a mixture of charcoal and clay spread with the finger...A series of fine engravings perfectly follow the profile. With energetic and precise movements, significant details are indicated (nostril, open mouth). A final charcoal line, dark black, was placed just at the corner of the lips and gives this head an expression of astonishment or surprise."

Near the first paintings of lions and owls are 92 human palm prints in the shape of a bison or rhino. Some archaeologists believe they may be the artist's signature. Analysis of the prints indicate they were made a single individual, who stood about 180 centimeters tall, using his right hand.

On the producing tracings of images in Chauvet Cave, Zach Zorich wrote in Archaeology magazine, “Studying the paintings is an intensive process that begins by going into the cave to photograph an image. The digital photograph is enlarged in the laboratory. Then a researcher places a sheet of transparent plastic over the photo and traces the image in as much detail as possible. The tracing is then brought inside the cave to check it against the original painting. At this stage the researchers also move a light at different angles around the painting to reveal any hidden details of the image. The process forces the researchers to put themselves in the place of the painters and understand the variety of techniques that were used to make the artwork. Some of the images were made after scraping away a layer of dark brown clay that covers the cream-colored limestone walls. Most were made by drawing with a piece of charcoal, or painting with a brush or finger covered in red pigment, or by spitting pigment against the wall. As the tracing is created, the research team learns how the images were composed and the order in which the lines were drawn. "People ask me, 'Why don't you use photos?'" says Clottes. "Well, a photo is not a study...the human mind is still the better computer."

Animal Images in Chauvet Cave

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The paintings in the Chauvet Cave complex include images of herds of hooked-horned aurochs (wild oxen), ibex, running deer, charging wooly rhinoceros, prowling lions, rearing thick-maned horses, wooly mammoths, open-mouthed bears and animals that are usually associated with Africa not Europe. In all, there are 442 animals, created over thousands of years, using nearly 400,000 square feet of cave surface. Some animals are solitary or concealed but most are in groups, some of which look like great mosaics or multiple movie frames.

Jean Clottes wrote in for The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The dominant animals throughout the cave are lions, mammoths, and rhinoceroses. From the archaeological record, it is clear that these animals were rarely hunted; the images are thus not simple depictions of daily life at the time they were made. Along with cave bears (which were far larger than grizzly bears), the lions, mammoths, and rhinos account for 63 percent of the identified animals, a huge percentage compared to later periods of cave art. Horses, bison, ibex, reindeer, red deer, aurochs, Megaceros deer, musk-oxen, panther, and owl are also represented. An exceptional image of the lower body of a woman was found associated with a bison figure. Many images of large red dots are, indeed, partial handprints made with the palm of the hand. Red hand stencils and complete handprints have also been discovered. [Source: Jean Clottes, Independent Scholar. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, metmuseum.org, October 2002]

Unlike other caves in France and Spain which show mostly hunted animals such as bisons and oxen, the animals in Chauvet cave are large powerful animals that generally weren't eaten for food: lions, cave bears, rhinos. A wooly rhino is shown charging a herd of other rhinos and clashing with one of its members. Among the 72 cave lions one is depicted "sniffing the hindquarters of a crouched and snarling companion." The cave contains the first prehistoric cave paintings of a spotted leopard, a musk oxen and an owl turning its had 180 degrees.

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Spread out over six chambers spanning 1,300 feet were panels of lionesses in pursuit of great herbivores—including aurochs, the now-extinct ancestors of domestic cattle, and bison; engravings of owls and woolly rhinoceroses; a charcoal portrait of four wild horses captured in individualized profile, and some 400 other images of beasts that had roamed the plains and valleys in huge numbers during the ice age. With a skill never before seen in cave art, the artists had used the knobs, recesses and other irregularities of the limestone to impart a sense of dynamism and three-dimensionality to their galloping, leaping creatures. Later, Jean-Marie Chauvet would marvel at the “remarkable realism” and “aesthetic mastery” of the artworks they encountered that day. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 ]

On the paintings that he found particularly striking or moving,the German filmmaker Werner Herzog said, “the Panel of the Horses and the Panel of the Lions, of course. The lions in particular are just incredible because a whole group of lions is looking, is stalking something. The intensity of their gaze, all looking exactly at something, focusing on something. You don't know exactly on what they focus and it has an intensity of art, of depiction, which is just awesome.” [Source: Archaeology magazine, March/April 2011]

Megaloceros Gallery and End Chamber

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Describing the Megaloceros Gallery, Judith Thurman wrote in The New Yorker,"Huge, elklike herbivores...mingle on the walls with rhinos, horses, bisons, a glorious ibex, three abstract vulvas, and assorted geometric signs...It seems to have been a fathering point or a staging area where the artist built hearths to produce their charcoal."

The End Chamber is a spectacular vaulted space with a third of the cave's etchings and paintings. Thurman wrote: “The paintings---a few in ocher, most in charcoal--- are “all meticulously composed. A great frieze covers the back left wall: a pride of lions with Pointillist whiskers seem to be hunting a herd of bison, which appear to have stampeded a troop of rhinos, one of which looks as if it had fallen, or is climbing out of, a cavity in the rock... As at may sites , the scratches made by a standing bear have been overlaid with the palimpsest of signs or drawings, and one has to wonder if the carved art didn't begin with a recognition that bear claws were an expressive tool for engraving."

“To the far right of the freeze, on a separate wall, a huge, finely modeled bison stands alone, grazing stage left toward a pair of figures painted on a conical outcropping of rock that descends from the ceiling and comes to a point about four feet above the floor. The fleshy shape of this pendant is unmistakably phallic, and all of its sides are decorated."

On the End Chamber, Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Gazing through the murk, I studied one monumental panel, 36 feet long, drawn in charcoal. Sixteen lions on the far right sprang in pursuit of a panicking herd of buffalo. To the left, a pack of woolly rhinos thundered across the tableau. The six curving horns of one beast conveyed rapid movement—what Herzog had described as “a form of proto cinema.” A single rhino had turned to face the stampeding herd. I marveled at the artist’s interplay of perspective and action, half-expecting the menagerie to launch itself from the rock. I thought: They have been here.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 \||/]

Imagining the Creators of Chauvet Cave

When asked if the people of Chauvet were artists or craftsmen, the German filmmaker Werner Herzog said, “In this case, you can clearly say this is art, and you can say it easily. It goes back to a time when there was, for example, no art market, no exhibitions, no galleries. No doubt in my heart that this is art, and it's some of the greatest that the human race ever created, period. It can't get any better, and it hasn't gotten much better. That's a great mystery." [Source: Archaeology magazine, March/April 2011]

Chip Walter wrote in National Geographic: “It is as if we are walking into the throat of an enormous animal. The tongue of a metal path arcs up and then drops downward into the blackness below. The ceiling closes in, and in some places the heavy cave walls crowd close enough to touch my shoulders. Then the flanks of the limestone open up, and we enter the belly of an expansive chamber. [Source:Chip Walter, National Geographic, January 2015 <|||>]



“This is where the cave lions are. And the woolly rhinos, mammoths, and bison, a menagerie of ancient creatures, stampeding, battling, stalking in total silence. Outside the cave, where the real world is, they are all gone now. But this is not the real world. Here they remain alive on the shadowed and creviced walls. <|||>

“Around 36,000 years ago, someone living in a time incomprehensibly different from ours walked from the original mouth of this cave to the chamber where we stand and, by flickering firelight, began to draw on its bare walls: profiles of cave lions, herds of rhinos and mammoths, a magnificent bison off to the right, and a chimeric creature—part bison, part woman—conjured from an enormous cone of overhanging rock. Other chambers harbor horses, ibex, and aurochs; an owl shaped out of mud by a single finger on a rock wall; an immense bison formed from ocher-soaked handprints; and cave bears walking casually, as if in search of a spot for a long winter’s nap. The works are often drawn with nothing more than a single and perfect continuous line.” <|||>

Spiritual Purpose of Chauvet Cave

Many of the powerful animals are rarely seen in other prehistoric cave complexes, suggesting a religious purpose. Clottes told Newsweek, they appear to have "symbolized danger, strength and power" and the artist may have been attempting to capture "the essence of " the animals.

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “In 1996, two years after his first visit to Chauvet, Clottes published a seminal work, The Shamans of Prehistory, co-written with the eminent South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, that presented new ideas about the origins of cave art. The world of Paleolithic man existed on two planes, the authors hypothesized, a world of sense and touch, and a spirit world that lay beyond human consciousness. Rather than serving as dwellings for ancient man, Clottes and his colleague contended, caves such as Chauvet—dark, cold, forbidding places—functioned as gateways to a netherworld where spirits were thought to dwell. Elite members of Paleolithic societies —probably trained in the representational arts—entered these caves for ritualistic communion with the spirits, reaching out to them through their drawings. “You needed torches, grease lamps and pigment to go inside the caves. It was not for everyone. It was an expedition,” Clottes told me. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 \||/]

“As Clottes and his co-author interpreted it, the red-ocher handprints on the walls of Chauvet might well have represented attempts to summon the spirits out of the rock; the artists would likely have used the limestone wall’s irregularities not only to animate the animal’s features but also to locate their spirits’ dwelling places. Enigmatic displays found inside Chauvet—a bear cranium placed on an altarlike pedestal, a phallic column upon which a woman’s painted legs and vulva blend into a bison’s head—lend weight to the theory that these places held transformative power and religious significance. Clottes imagined that these primeval artists connected to the spirit world in an altered state of consciousness, much like the hallucinogen-induced trances achieved by modern-day shamans in traditional societies in South America, west Asia, parts of Africa, and Australia. He perceived parallels between the images that shamans see when hallucinating—geometric patterns, religious imagery, wild animals and monsters—and the images adorning Chauvet, Lascaux and other caves. \||/

“It was not surprising, says Clottes, that these early artists made the conscious choice to embellish their walls with wild animals, while almost entirely ignoring human beings. For Paleolithic man, animals dominated their environment, and served as sources of both sustenance and terror. “You must imagine the Ardèche Gorge of 30,000 years ago,” Clottes, now 81, says in his home study, surrounded by Tuareg knives and saddlebags, Central African masks, Bolivian cloth puppets and other mementos from his travels in search of ancient rock art. “In those days you might have one family of 20 people living there, the next family 12 miles away. It was a world of very few people living in a world of animals.” Clottes believes that prehistoric shamans invoked the spirits in their paintings not only to aid them on their hunts, but also for births, illnesses and other crises and rites of passage. “These animals were full of power, and the paintings are images of power,” he says. “If you get in touch with the spirit, it is not out of idle curiosity. You do it because you need their help.” \||/


cave bear skulls in Chauvet Cave


Chauvet Cave, a Pilgrimage Site?

Chauvet Cave is filled with stalactites and stalagmites comprised of limestone and minerals that come in many shades and colors. The floors are littered with ursine remains. It seems a lot of cave bears hibernated here. Archaeologists had counted numerous bear wallows and 147 bears skulls in the cave, many of them dating back to the time when the paintings were made. Some of bears perhaps died naturally. Others maybe were eaten.

Chauvet contains human footprints, burnt bone fragments, napped flints, burned torches, and blackened hearths. Some archaeologist believe this is evidence indicates no people lived in the cave but visited again and again in a way that is consistent with a pilgrimage site.

Among the images with possible religious significance are semicircles of dots and a creature with human legs, the head and torso of a bison and a pubic triangles (possibly a fertility symbol). One of the most intriguing finds is bear cranium skull found resting on what appears to be a stone altar in a space called the Skull Chamber. Some of the bear bones and skulls are arranged in such a way that suggest ritual slaughter.

Zach Zorich wrote in Archaeology magazine, “The way that people used Chauvet Cave was shaped by their interactions with the cave's primary residents, the now-extinct cave bear. Humans do not appear to have lived in the cave and it is likely that the paintings were made in the spring or summer when the bears would not have been hibernating. The bears themselves seem to have held a special significance for the artists who worked in the cave, in addition to being subjects of the artwork. A bear skull was placed on top of a large, flat rock in an area called the Skull Chamber. There is evidence a fire was lit before it was set there, raising the possibility that it had some kind of ritual function. More than 190 bear skulls have been found in the cave, giving paleontologists an enormous amount of information about a species that disappeared 20,000 to 25,000 years ago and used caves in ways that were similar to how humans used them. The bears organized the space within the cave by digging shallow depressions in the cave floor, possibly as sleeping areas. They also made their own marks on the cave walls by repeatedly raking their claws across the limestone, incising sets of four parallel lines. In some cases the paintings in Chauvet Cave are a kind of collaboration between humans and bears. Human artists incorporated claw marks into some of their paintings. In others, cave bears made their marks on top of the paintings, adding a new element to the images that cave art expert Jean Clottes calls "the magic of the bears."

Discovery of Chauvet Cave

Jean-Marie Chauvet was a park ranger working the Ministry of Culture and a custodian of the prehistoric sites in the region when the cave was found. He and his friends, Brune and Hillaire, were looking for prehistoric caves. The entrance to the one they found had been covered for millennia by a landside.

A few days before discovering the cave they "felt a draft coming out of the ground...For us that is sign there is something else." After digging out the hole they found the two men and one women squeezed through a narrow tunnel and lowered themselves 30 feet down on a rope where they found a spectacular gallery of prehistoric old paintings. "I thought I was dreaming," said one of the spelunkers, "We were all covered with goose pimples...It was a great moment. We all shouted and yelled." The spelunkers were aware of the damage they might cause. The next time they entered the cave they laid down a roll of plastic so they wouldn't disturb the archaeological integrity of the site. Chauvet had the cave named after him. Brune and Hillaire were honored with their names attached to chambers.

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: On a “cold afternoon in December 1994....three friends and weekend cavers—Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire—followed an air current into an aperture in a limestone cliff, tunneled their way through a narrow passage, using hammers and awls to chip away at the rocks and stalactites that blocked their progress, and descended into a world frozen in time—its main entrance blocked off by a massive rock slide 29,000 years ago. Brunel, the first to wedge through the passage, glimpsed surreal crystalline deposits that had built up for millennia, then stopped before a pair of blurry red lines drawn on the wall to her right. “They have been here,” she shouted to her awe-struck companions. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 \||/]

“The trio moved gingerly across the earthen floor, trying not to tread on the crystallized ashes from an ancient fire pit, gazing in wonder at hundreds of images. “We found ourselves in front of a rock wall covered entirely with red ocher drawings,” the cavers remembered in their brief memoir published last year. “The panel contained a mammoth with a long trunk, then a lion with red dots spattered around its snout in an arc, like drops of blood. We crouched on our heels, gazing at the cave wall, mute with stupefaction.”“ \||/

Disputes Involved with the Discovery of Chauvet Cave


Chauvet cave bear "shrine"

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: But story begins in the spring of 1994, “when a veteran spelunker and friend of Jean-Marie Chauvet, Michel Rosa, known to friends as Baba, initially detected air seeping from a small chamber blocked by stones. According to close friends of both men, it was Baba who suggested the airflow was coming from a cave hidden behind the rocks. Baba, they said, tried to climb into the hole, only to give up after reaching a stalactite he couldn’t move by hand. The aperture became known among spelunkers as Le Trou de Baba, or Baba’s Hole. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 \||/]

“Chauvet has maintained that Rosa—a reclusive figure who has rarely spoken publicly about the case—lost interest in the site and moved on to explore other caves. Others insist that Baba had always planned to come back—and that Chauvet had cheated him out of the chance by returning, unannounced, with Eliette Brunel six months later. Chauvet violated a caver’s code of honor, says Michel Chabaud, formerly one of his closest friends. “On the level of morality,” he says, “Chauvet did not behave well.” Baba vanished into obscurity and Chauvet’s name was attached to one of the world’s greatest cultural treasures. \||/

“It was just a few dozen yards from this spot that another drama played out on the night of December 24, 1994—a story that has re-emerged in the public eye and renewed old grievances. At Chauvet’s invitation, Michel Chabaud and two other spelunkers, all close friends and occasional visitors to the Trou de Baba, entered the cave to share with the original three their exhilaration at the discovery. Six days after their find, Chauvet, Brunel and Hillaire had not yet explored every chamber. Chabaud and his two friends pushed into the darkness—and became the first humans in 30,000 years to penetrate the Gallery of the Lions, the End Chamber, where the finest drawings were found. “We saw paintings everywhere, and we went deeper and deeper,” Chabaud wrote in his diary that evening. “We were in a state of incredible excitement Everyone was saying, ‘incredible, this is the new Lascaux.’” Chabaud and his companions showed the chamber they discovered to Chauvet, he says, and asked for recognition of their role in the find. Chauvet brushed them off, saying dismissively, “You were only our guests.” \||/

Chauvet Cave After Its Discovery

The French government spent two years and $2 million widening the entrance, installing video surveillance cameras and preparing a staging area for human visitors. Since then guards have been posted at the entrance around the clock. The entrance itself resembles a bank vault with a metal door and double key system. Voice alarms go off if anyone approached too closely. Inside the cave a metal catwalk was installed in one section.

For years exploration of the cave was blocked by lawsuits over who owned the cave. Scientists didn't visit it again until 1999, when they photographed the images using 35-mm, infrared, and digital cameras and scanned the images into computers that brightened the colors and intensified the contrast.

The lawsuits pitted the French government against Jean-Marie Chauvet and his partners as well as the owners of the land on which the cave stands, The suit was settled with the finders entitled to royalties from reproductions of the art inside the cave and the owners of the land entitled to “treasure” found on the land, which technically means they have the same right landowners have when gold or oil is found on their land.

The plan was for cave to be bought from its landowner and sealed off to everyone except for scientists. "Our goal," said Béghain, " is to keep the cave in this virgin state so that research theoretically continue indefinitely." A replica of Chauvet is being built nearby by local authorities in Ardeche. Only a few select group of scholars and journalists are allowed in the cave. They are only allowed in the cave for brief periods in the spring and autumn and it is not unusual for the cave trips to be cancelled because of some problem or another.

Impact of Chauvet Cave

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Chip Walter wrote in National Geographic: “How did such human accomplishment come to be, so long ago, seemingly out of nowhere? Until recently it was thought that the drawings found on the walls of well-known Upper Paleolithic caves in southern Europe like Altamira, Lascaux, and Chauvet were the expression of a superior kind of human—us—who had arrived on the continent, driving out the brutish, artless Neanderthals who had been living and evolving there for hundreds of thousands of years.” [Source: Chip Walter, National Geographic, January 2015 <|||>]

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Within months, Chauvet, would revolutionize our understanding of emerging human creativity. Radiocarbon dating conducted on 80 charcoal samples from the paintings determined that the majority of the works dated back 36,000 years—more than double the age of any comparable cave art yet uncovered. A second wave of Paleolithic artists, scientists would determine, entered the cave 5,000 years later and added dozens more paintings to the walls. Researchers were compelled to radically revise their estimates of the period when Homo sapiens first developed symbolic art and began to unleash the power of imagination. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 \||/]

“At the height of the Aurignacian period—between 40,000 and 28,000 years ago—when Homo sapiens shared the turf with the still-dominant Neanderthals, this artistic impulse may have signaled an evolutionary leap. While Homo sapiens were experimenting with perspective and creating proto-animation on the walls, their cousins, the Neanderthals, shuffling toward extinction, had not moved beyond the production of crude rings and awls. The finding also demonstrated that Paleolithic artists had painted in a consistent style, using similar techniques for 25,000 years—a remarkable stability that is the sign, Gregory Curtis wrote in The Cave Painters, his major survey of prehistoric art, of “a classical civilization.” \||/

Jean Clottes: the Man Closest to Chauvet Cave

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “A few days after Christmas in 1994, Jean Clottes, a pre-eminent scholar of rock art and then an archaeology official in the French Ministry of Culture, received a call from a conservator, asking Clottes to rush to the Ardèche Gorge to verify a find. “I had my family coming; I asked whether I could do it after the New Year,” Clottes recalls one day at his home in Foix, in the Pyrenees south of Toulouse. “He said, ‘No, you’ve got to come right away. It looks like a big discovery. They say there are hundreds of images, lots of lions and rhinos.’ I thought that is bizarre, because representations of lions and rhinos are not very frequent in caves.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 \||/]

“Clottes arrived at the grotto and inched with great difficulty through the air shaft: “It was not horizontal. It sloped down, and then it turned, and then it sloped up. ” As he approached the walls in the darkness, peering at the images through his headlamp, Clottes could sense immediately that the works were genuine. He stared, enthralled, at the hand-size red dots that covered one wall, a phenomenon he had never observed before. “Later we found out that they were done by putting wet paint inside the hand, and applying the hand against the wall,” he says. “At the time, we didn’t know how they were made.” Clottes marveled at the verisimilitude of the wild horses, the vitality of the head-butting woolly rhinos, the masterful use of the limestone walls. “These were hidden masterpieces that nobody had laid eyes on for thousands and thousands of years, and I was the first specialist to see them,” he says. “I had tears in my eyes.” \||/

“Clottes’ original interpretation of Paleolithic art was at once embraced and ridiculed by fellow scholars. One dismissed it as “psychedelic ravings.” Another titled his review of the Clottes-Lewis-Williams book, “Membrane and Numb Brain: A Close Look at a Recent Claim for Shamanism in Paleolithic Art.” One colleague berated him for “encouraging the use of drugs” by writing lyrically about the trancelike states of the Paleo shamans. “We were accused of all sorts of things, even of immorality,” Clottes tells me. “But altered states of consciousness are a fundamental part of us. It is a fact.” \||/

“Clottes found a champion in the German director Werner Herzog, who made him the star of his documentary about Chauvet, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and popularized Clottes’ theories. “Will we ever be able to understand the vision of these artists across such an abyss of time?” Herzog asks, and Clottes, on camera, provides an answer. For the artists, “There [were] no barriers between the world where we are and the world of the spirits. A wall can talk to us, can accept us or refuse us,” he said. “A shaman can send his or her spirit to the world of the supernatural or can receive the visit inside him of supernatural spirits...you realize how different life must have been for those people from the way we live now.” \||/

“In the years since his theory of a prehistoric vision quest first stirred debate, Clottes has been challenged on other fronts. Archaeologists have insisted that the samples used to date the Chauvet paintings must have been contaminated, because no other artworks from that period have approached that level of sophistication. Declaring the paintings to be 32,000 years old was like claiming to have found “a Renaissance painting in a Roman villa,” scoffed British archaeologist Paul Pettit, who insisted they were at least 10,000 years younger. The findings “polarized the archaeological world,” said Andrew Lawson, another British archaeologist.

Study of Chauvet Cave

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owl made from cave bear
claw marks
Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Paleontologists (who study animal remains inside the cave, mainly of bears but also wolves, ibexes and other mammals), geologists (who examine how the cave evolved and what this can tell us about prehistoric people’s actions inside it), art historians (who study the painted and engraved walls in all their detail) and other specialists visit Chauvet on a regular basis, adding to our understanding of the site. They have mapped every square inch with advanced 3-D technology, counted the bones of 190 cave bears and inventoried the 425 animal images, identifying nine species of carnivores and five species of ungulates. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 \||/]

“ They have documented the pigments used—including charcoal and unhydrated hematite, a natural earth pigment otherwise known as red ocher. They have uncovered and identified the tools the cave artists employed, including brushes made from horse hair, swabs, flint points and lumps of iron oxides dug out of the ground that could be molded into a kind of hand-held, Paleolithic crayon. They have used geological analysis and a laser-based remote sensing technology to visualize the collapse of limestone slabs that sealed access to Chauvet Cave until its 1994 rediscovery. \||/

“One recent study, co-directed by Clottes, analyzed the faint traces left by human fingers on a decorated panel in the End Chamber. The fingers were pressed against the wall and moved vertically or horizontally against the soft limestone before the painter drew images of a lion, rhinoceros, bison and bear. Clottes and his co-researcher, Marc Azéma, theorize that the tracing was a shamanistic ritual intended to establish a link between the artist and the supernatural powers inside the rock. Prehistorian Norbert Aujoulat studied a single painting, Panel of the Panther, identified the tools used to create the masterwork and found other images throughout the cave that were produced employing the same techniques. Archaeologists Dominique Baffier and Valérie Feruglio have focused their research on the large red dots on the Chauvet walls, and determined that they were made by two individuals—a male who stood about 5-foot-9 and a female or adolescent—who coated their hands with red ocher and pressed their palms against the limestone. \||/

“Jean-Michel Geneste, Clottes’ successor as scientific director of Chauvet, leads two 40-person teams of experts into the grotto each year—in March and October—for 60 hours of research over 12 days. Geneste co-authored a 2014 study that analyzed a mysterious assemblage of limestone blocks and stalagmites in a side alcove. His team concluded that Paleolithic men had arranged some of the blocks, perhaps in the process of opening a conduit to paintings in other chambers, perhaps for deeper symbolic reasons. Geneste has also paid special attention to depictions of lions, symbols of power accorded a higher status than other mammals. “Some of the lion paintings are very anthropomorphic,” he observes, “with a nose and human profile showing an empathy between the artists and these carnivores. They are painted completely differently from other animals in Chauvet.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 \||/]

Chauvet Cave Paintings 10,000 Years Older than Previously Thought

Radiocarbon dating in the Chauvet Cave in the mid 2010s revealed a new chronology of human and animal occupation of the site during the Paleolithic era. Léa Surugue wrote in the International Business Times: Previous analyses had dated the charcoal drawings back to 22,000–18,000 BP. However, the comprehensive dating program carried out in the cave now indicates a much older age (32,000–30,000 BP) for the black drawings, which are the only one in the cave datable with the radiocarbon-dating method. All the results are published in the Proceedings of the National [Source: Léa Surugue, International Business Times, April 11, 2016 >||<]

“According to analysis of the absolute dates obtained from the artworks, as well as other data derived from traces of animal and human activity, the cave went through two distinct periods of human occupation: one from 37 to 33,500 years ago, and the other from 31 to 28,000 years ago. Additionally, the scientists found bears also took refuge in the cave until 33,000 years ago. >||<

“It is the first time that scientists are able to come up with a chronology of the cave's occupation using time references that everyone can understand. "Before 2009, we were not able to date human occupation in the cave precisely, because we did not know how to convert a given measurement of radiocarbon in a sample into an estimate of the sample's calendar age. This study is the first to date human and animal occupation of the Chauvet cave into actual calendar years," study author Anita Quiles, from the French Institute for Eastern Archaeology, told IBTimes UK. >||<

“In total, Quiles and her team analysed 250 radiocarbon dates, collected over 15 years. They include analyses of black animal drawings and charcoal marks (including torch marks), but also charcoal and bear bones found on the cave's floor. Although not all the artworks in the cave have been analysed, radiocarbon dating from the black charcoal drawings reveal that most were probably created during the first phase of human occupation, between 37,000 to 33,500 years ago. These findings challenge traditional beliefs about parietal art. Indeed, experts were surprised that our human ancestors were able to create such rich and detailed frescoes, so far back in the past. "Now, we understand that even at this time, humans were capable of creating such magnificent and elaborate artworks. The drawings are full of dynamism, they reflect a real desire to transmit something to an audience," Quiles says. >||<

“The study of the bears' bones samples suggests an overlap between their occupation of the cave and that of the first humans who passed through Chauvet. However, the probability that they crossed paths is low, because ancient humans would probably not have entered the territory of such a dangerous animal. Dating conducted in the cave does not allow researchers to know how long the humans used the cave for, but it is also probable that they did not use it continuously during their first and second phase of occupation.” >||<

Werner Herzog's Film About Chauvet Cave

In March 2010, Archaeology magazine reported, preeminent German filmmaker Werner Herzog was given unprecedented access to Chauvet Cave in southeastern France to film the site's Paleolithic art. The result, his film Cave of Forgotten Dreams , which was released in spring 2011, is a document of some of humankind's earliest and most extraordinary paintings. Since the cave was discovered in December 1994, few people, mostly researchers, have seen the artwork, owing to the cave's extremely delicate climate and concerns about preserving the ancient paintings. But the film is more than a tour of the cave. It is an exploration of what the science of archaeology is revealing about the Aurignacian people---Europe's first artists---and the origins of the modern human mind. Part of the film focuses on the work of Jean Clottes, the former director of research for the Chauvet Cave Project, and Jean-Michel Geneste, the project's current director, and what their work tells us about how the Aurignacian people may have lived their lives and connected to their world through art. Herzog's experience as a hunter and a long-distance walker helped him understand certain aspects of their lives.[Source: Archaeology magazine, March/April 2011]

On why Chauvet is so exceptional Herzog told Archaeology magazine: “It is one of the greatest and most sensational discoveries in human culture and, of course, what is so fascinating is that it was preserved as a perfect time capsule for 20,000 years. The quality of the art, which is from a time so far, so deep back in history, is stunning. It's not that we have what people might call the primitive beginnings of painting and art. It is right there as if it had burst on the scene fully accomplished. That is the astonishing thing, to understand that the modern human soul somehow awakened. It is not a long slumber and a slow, slow, slow awakening. I think it was a fairly sudden awakening. But when I say "sudden" it may have gone over 20,000 years or so. Time does not factor in when you go back into such deep prehistory.

On the difficulties shooting a 3-D film in a cave, Herzog said, “Of course, we were only allowed to take along what we could carry in our own hands, so we couldn't move heavier equipment into the cave. The most intense challenge came from the fact that when filming in 3-D, you cannot move a 3-D camera around like a regular film camera. If you move, for example, closer to an object, the lenses actually have to be closer together, and when you are fairly close you even have to make them "squint" slightly. We had to reconfigure our camera to take close-up shots of the paintings. It is a high-precision, technical thing to have to do, in semidarkness on a narrow walkway. We had a fairly brief period of time to film. When the researchers left in early April, I had the cave practically undisturbed for filming, but only for six days, and only four hours each day. Of course, later in the season the carbon dioxide level in the branch of the cave where you have the Panel of the Lions becomes dangerously high. In other parts of the cave there is a fairly high level of radon, and it has a cumulative effect on your lungs. So, we had to move around between toxic gases and radioactive gases.

When asked why he choose to film in 3-D, Herzog said: “3-D was imperative because I initially thought there were flat walls and paintings in the cave. But there are no flat areas. The drama of the bulges and niches was actually used by the artists. They did it with phenomenal skill, with great artistic skill, and there was something expressive about it, a drama of rock transformed and utilized, in the drama of paintings. This is why it was imperative to shoot in 3-D.


Chauvet Teverga


Government Control of Chauvet Cave

Since 1994 Chauvet Cave has been rigidly and forcefully protected by the French Ministry of Culture. Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Immediately upon Chauvet’s discovery—even before it was announced—French authorities installed a steel door at the entrance and imposed stringent access restrictions. In 2014, a total of 280 individuals—including scientists, specialists working on the simulation and conservators monitoring the cave—were allowed to enter, typically spending two hours in a single visit.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 \||/]

According to UNESCO: “The decorated cave of Pont d’Arc, known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc is protected at the highest national level as a historic monument. Likewise, the buffer zone benefits from the highest level of national protection since early 2013. The buffer zone accordingly will not permit future development. [Source: UNESCO *=*]

“The focus of management is the implementation of a preventive conservation strategy based on constant monitoring and non-intervention. Several monitoring systems have been installed in the cave which form an integral part of these preventive conservation efforts. Any changes in relative humidity and/or the air composition inside the cave may have severe effects on the condition of the drawings and paintings. It is due to this risk that the cave will not be open to the general public, but also that future visits of experts, researchers and conservators will need to be restricted to the absolute minimum necessary. Despite the delicateness of paintings and drawings, no conservation activities have been carried out in the cave and it is intended to retain all paintings and drawings in the fragile but pristine condition in which they were discovered. *=*

“The management authorities have implemented a management plan (2012-16), based on strategic objectives, activity fields and concrete actions, which are planned with time frames, institutional responsibilities, budget requirements and quality assurance indicators. The latter will allow for full quality assurance after the cycle of implementation in 2016, following which the management plan will have to be revised for future management processes. *=*

“After it became clear that the cave would never be accessible to the general public, the idea of a facsimile reconstruction to provide interpretation and presentation facilities emerged. The Grand Projet Espace de Restitution de la Grotte Chauvet (ERGC) was established, with the aim of creating a facsimile reconstruction of the cave with its paintings and drawings, and a discovery and interpretation area to attract visitors. *=*

Chauvet Cave Site

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Paulo Rodrigues and Charles Chauveau, conservators overseeing the site, are climbing a path beyond a vineyard through a forest of pine and chestnut toward the base of a limestone cliff perforated with grottoes. It’s a cold, misty morning in December, and wisps of fog drift over the neat rows of vines and the Ardèche River far below. The Pont d’Arc, the limestone arch that spans the river, lies obscured behind the trees. During the Aurignacian period, Rodrigues tells me, the vegetation was much sparser here, and the Pont d’Arc would have been visible from the rock ledge that we’re now walking on; from this angle the formation bears a striking resemblance to a mammoth. Many experts believe that early artists deliberately selected the Chauvet cave for their vision quests because of its proximity to the limestone monolith. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 \||/]

“After following the path along the cliff, the conservators and I stop before a grotto used to store equipment and monitor the atmosphere inside Chauvet. “We are doing all we can to limit the human presence, so as not to alter this equilibrium,” says Chauveau, showing me a console with removable air-sample tubes that measure the level of radon, a colorless, odorless radioactive gas released from decaying uranium-ore deposits inside caves. “The goal is to keep the cave in the exact condition that it was found in 1994,” he adds. “We don’t want another Lascaux on our hands.” The two conservators make their way here weekly, checking for intruders, making certain that air filters and other equipment are running smoothly. \||/

“Afterward, we follow a wooden walkway, constructed in 1999, that leads to the Chauvet entrance. Rodrigues points to a massive slab of limestone, covered in moss, orange mineral deposits and weeds—“all of that rock slid down, and covered the original entrance.” At last we arrive at a set of wooden steps and climb to the four-foot-high steel door that seals off the aperture. It is as far as I am permitted to go: The Culture Ministry bars anyone from entering the cave during the damp and cold Provençal winter, when carbon dioxide levels inside the grotto reach 4 percent of the total atmosphere, twice as high as the amount considered to be safe to breathe.” \||/

Chauvet Cave Museum Experience

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “As I descend a footpath through subterranean gloom, limestone walls tower 40 feet and plunge into a chasm. Gleaming stalactites dangle from the ceiling. After several twists and turns, I reach a cul-de-sac. As I shine my iPhone flashlight on the walls, out of the darkness emerge drawings in charcoal and red ocher of woolly rhinos, mammoths and other mammals that began to die out during the Pleistocene era, about 10,000 years ago. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 \||/]

“It feels, and even smells, like a journey into a deep hole in the earth. But this excursion is actually taking place in a giant concrete shed set in the pine-forested hills of the Ardèche Gorge in southern France. The rock walls are stone-colored mortar molded over metal scaffolding; the stalactites were fashioned from plastic and paint in a Paris atelier. Some of the wall paintings are the work of my guide, Alain Dalis, and the team of fellow artists at his studio, Arc et Os, in Montignac, north of Toulouse. Dalis pauses before a panel depicting a pride of lions in profile, sketched with charcoal. “These were drawn on polystyrene, a synthetic resin, then fitted to the wall,” he tells me. The result is a precise, transfixing replica of the End Chamber, also called the Gallery of Lions, inside the actual Chauvet Cave, located three miles from here and widely viewed as the world’s greatest repository of Upper Paleolithic art. \||/

“The $62.5 million facsimile is called the Caverne du Pont d’Arc, after a nearby landmark—a natural archway of eroded limestone spanning the Ardèche River and known to humans since Paleolithic times. The replica, opening to the public this month, has been in the works since 2007, when the Ardèche departmental government, recognizing that an international audience was clamoring to view the cave, decided to join with other public and private funders to build a simulacrum. Restrictions imposed by the French Ministry of Culture bar all but scientists and other researchers from the fragile environment of the cave itself. \||/

“Five hundred people—including artists and engineers, architects and special-effects designers—collaborated on the project, using 3-D computer mapping, high-resolution scans and photographs to recreate the textures and colors of the cave. “This is the biggest project of its kind in the world,” declares Pascal Terrasse, the president of the Caverne du Pont d’Arc project and a deputy to the National Assembly from Ardèche. “We made this ambitious choice... so that everybody can admire these exceptional, but forever inaccessible treasures.” \||/

“When I arrived at the Caverne du Pont d’Arc for a preview that rainy morning this past December, I was skeptical. The installation’s concrete enclosure was something of an eyesore in an otherwise pristine landscape—like a football stadium plunked down at Walden Pond. I feared that a facsimile would reduce the miracle of Chauvet to a Disneyland or Madame Tussaud-style theme park—a tawdry, commercialized experience. But my hopes began to rise as we followed a winding pathway flanked by pines, offering vistas of forested hills at every turn. At the entrance to the recreated cave, a dark passage, the air was moist and cool—the temperature maintained at 53.5 degrees, just as in Chauvet. The rough, sloping rock faces, streaked with orange mineral deposits, and multi-spired stalactites hanging from the ceiling, felt startlingly authentic, as did the reproduced bear skulls, femurs and teeth littering the earthen floors. The paintings were copied using the austere palette of Paoleolithic artists, traced on surfaces that reproduced, bump for bump, groove for groove, the limestone canvas used by ancient painters. \||/

“The exactitude owed much to the participation of some of the most preeminent prehistoric cave experts in France, including Clottes and Geneste. The team painstakingly mapped every square inch of the real Chauvet by using 3-D models, then shrinking the projected surface area from 8,000 to 3,000 square meters. Architects suspended a frame of welded metal rods—shaped to digital coordinates provided by the 3-D model—from the roof of the concrete shell. They layered mortar over the metal cage to re-create the limestone inside Chauvet. Artists then applied pigments with brushes, mimicking the earth tones of the cave walls, based on studies conducted by geomorphologists at the University of Savoie in Chambery. Artists working in plastics created crystal formations and animal bones. Twenty-seven panels were painted on synthetic resin in studios in both Montignac, in the Dordogne; and in Toulouse. “We wanted the experience to resemble as closely as possible the feeling of entering the grotto,” artist Alain Dalis told me.” \||/

Discoverers of Chauvet Cave Squabble Over the Profits

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “I caught up with the three original discoverers—or inventeurs, as the French often call them...The national press had picked up on the revived quarrel over the cave’s discovery. A headline in the French edition of Vanity Fair declared, “The Chauvet Cave and Its Broken Dreams.” New allegations were being aired, including a charge that one of the three discoverers, Christian Hillaire, had not even been at the cave that day. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, April 2015 \||/]

“The fracas was playing out against protracted haggling between the trio and the Caverne du Pont d’Arc’s financial backers. At stake was the division of profits from the sale of tickets and merchandise, a deal said to be worth millions. Chauvet and his companions had received $168,000 apiece from the French government as a reward for their discovery, and some officials felt the three did not deserve anything more. “They are just being greedy,” one official told me. (The Lascaux discoverers had never received a penny.) With negotiations stalled, the project’s backers had stripped the name “Chauvet” from the Caverne du Pont d’Arc facsimile—it was supposed to have been called the Caverne Chauvet-Pont d’Arc—and withdrawn invitations for the three to the opening. The dispute was playing into the hands of the inventeurs’ opponents. Pascal Terrasse of the Pont d’Arc project announced he was suspending talks with the trio because, he told Le Point newspaper, “I can’t negotiate with the people who aren’t the real discoverers.” \||/

“Christian Hillaire, stocky and rumpled, told me after weeks of what he deemed lies drummed up by a “cabal organized against us,” they could no longer remain silent. “We have always avoided making claims, even when we’re attacked,” said Eliette Brunel, a bespectacled, elegant and fit-looking woman, as we strolled down an alley in St. Remèze, her hometown, which was dead quiet in the wintry off-season. “But now, morally, we cannot accept what is happening.” Chauvet, a compact man with a shock of gray hair, said that the falling out with his former best friends still pained him, but he had no regrets for the way he had acted. “The visit [to the Chauvet Cave] on December 24th was a great convivial moment,” he said. “Everything that happened afterward was a pity. But we were there first, on the 18th of December. That can’t be forgotten. It’s sad that [our former friends] can no longer share this satisfying moment with us, but that was their choice.” \||/

“We walked together back to the Town Hall...Chauvet addressed the gathering in the courtyard. He referred mockingly to the fact that he hadn’t been invited to the opening of the facsimile (“I’ll have to pay €8 like everyone else”) but insisted that he wasn’t going to be dragged into the controversy. “The important thing is that what we discovered inside that cave belongs to all of humanity, to our children,” he said, to applause, “and as for the rest of it, come what may.” \||/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ancientfoods.wordpress.com ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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