There are several hundred caves in Europe which contain art—paintings and engravings—which date back to the Paleolithic era when modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) were first occupying the continent. This art is a reflection of the history, religion, and science of this early European Homo sapiens. The oldest seems to be Chauvet in southern France which dates to about 32,000 years ago.
For the modern world, Chauvet was discovered by three spelunkers: Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire. By 1994, the three had been together as a spelunking team for several years and had discovered other painted caves. The leader of the team, Jean-Marie Chauvet, was a park ranger and custodian of the known painted caves in the area.
The team first entered Chauvet through the ceiling of a large chamber and lowered themselves the 30 feet to the floor with a chain ladder. When they noticed two lines of red ochre, they began to move carefully, following in one another’s footsteps so that they would disrupt the floor and its archaeological clues as little as possible. They soon found human footprints and a bear skull which had been placed on a rock like an altar.
When they returned to the cave they brought with them rolls of plastic to place on the floor to protect it. They discovered several painted chambers. From the entrance to one room, they could see three red bears painted on the back wall. The floor, however, was covered with bones which they knew must be preserved and untainted, and so they did not enter it.
The archaeology of Chauvet began in 1998 under the leadership of Dr. Jean Clottes, an eminent French pre-historian. One of the problems in doing archaeology in a cave like Chauvet is how to study it without destroying it. Preserving the cave art means that the climate within the cave must be preserved. This, in turn, means that the number of people allowed in must be limited as well as the amount of time they spend in the cave.
To answer the question of the age of the art, archaeologists turned to radiocarbon dating. While the earliest dates show 32,000 years ago, the 80 radiocarbon dates suggest that there were two basic periods of creativity within the cave: one period about 30,000 to 32,000 years ago, and then another about 25,000 to 27,000 years ago. Two correspond with two distinct archaeological periods in European prehistory: the Aurignacian and the Gravettian respectively. There appears to have been a landslide about 25,000 years ago which sealed the cave’s entrance until its rediscovery in 1994.
The hundreds of animal paintings in Chauvet depict at least 13 different species. Unlike the depictions in most of the other European cave art from this time period, the paintings on the walls of Chauvet feature many predators: cave lions, panthers, bears, and cave hyenas. Of the 420 animal paintings, 345 have been positively identified with regard to species, and of these 81% are “dangerous animals.”
To view some of this art see: The Art of the Chauvet Cave.
As in the other European painted caves, there are no fully developed human figures. There is, however, one painting which shows a vulva attached to a pair of incomplete legs. Each of the legs has a thigh and knee, but each ends in a point rather than feet. Above this figure, and in contact with it, is a bison head which is shaded with black and has an intense white eye. Some people have described this composite drawing as a Minotaur.
In the End Chamber, the deepest part of the cave, there are five vulvas: three at the entrance to the chamber and two near the back wall. While three of these images were engraved and two were painted in black, they are all similar in form.
There are a few panels of hand prints and hand stencils. There are also abstract markings—lines and dots—which are found throughout the cave.
In making the art, it appears that the artists first scraped the cave wall to make it smoother and lighter. In some instances, certain figures have been outlined with etching or incising. This enhances their three-dimensional quality and provides some suggestion of movement.
In making the painting of the four horses shown above, they scraped the wall and then painted two of the horses. Then the artist paused to scrape the wall below the outermost horse’s neck. Then another horse was added. Once again, the wall was scraped and the fourth horse was added. Gregory Curtis in his book The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists asks:
“Does it mean the artist began with the idea of painting only two horses, then had the inspiration to add a third or fourth?”The bear skull altar which was observed by the original group of spelunkers is generally viewed as having religious significance. It was placed in a chamber that resembles an amphitheater with the rock and its skull as the focal point. About 30,000 years ago, someone had built a fire on the rock. Then, after the fire had gone out, they placed the bear skull on the rock. The lower jaw of the skull is missing and the skull was placed on the rock so that the long canine teeth stick out of the edge of the rock.
There are 45 other bear skulls close to the rock with the bear skull. The skulls do not appear to have been placed with any pattern in mind. The absence of other bear bones in the area, however, has led archaeologists to suggest that these skulls were brought in by humans. One of the skulls is marked with two black lines showing that it was already a bare skull when it was brought in.
In another part of the cave, there are two bear skulls which have bear humeri stuck upright in the cave floor near them. In the small hollows in a rock, someone had placed two bear teeth.
The 2010 documentary film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” provides an incredible 3-D journey into the Chauvet Caves.