The Chauvet Cave – Part 3


In 1995 conducted dating adds an unexpected dimension to the find. In fact, three samples taken from two charcoal drawings of rhinoceroses and one of a bison have rendered dates of between 30,340 and 32,410 years before our time. Taking margins of error into account, this means that the paintings were completed at a very early period, roughly 31,000 years ago, within a span of 1,300 years. The dating of soot from torches that was superimposed upon a calcite layer on top of one drawing (26,120 ± 400) proves that at least some of the images were executed at a very early date. One can consequently dismiss or at least render the hypothesis improbable that Solutrean or Magdalenian visitors gathered charcoal from the ground and used it to make their drawings thousands of years after the disappearance of the original inhabitants of the cave.

The Chauvet Cave - Part 3 1

Conclusions Drawn from these Dates

The established dates, the earliest in the world for paintings, overthrow our ideas on the genesis and development of prehistoric cave art. It has long been known that 35,000 to 30,000 years ago, the Aurignacians of Southern Germany created sophisticated portable works of art, comprising ivory statuettes with both naturalistic and stylized features. This latest find proves that the theories of a linear development of art, following a direct path from rough and unaccomplished beginnings in the Aurignacian followed by steady progress over the following millenia, were groundless. The startlingly fresh and «advanced» art in the Chauvet Cave, which dates to the same era as the statuettes, proves that the artistic inventiveness the Aurignacians applied to their portable art and small statuettes in the round, could easily find its way into the realm of cave painting and engraving.

Today, the problem of the relationship between the artists of the Ardèche and those in the Swabian Jura is being examined. In spite of their small number, the statuettes of Vogelherd and Geissenklosterle show subjects exactly like those in the Chauvet Cave: mammoths, felines, bison, bears, horses, and rhinoceroses. Even a composite creature, a man with a lion’s head, was found at the Hohlenstein-Stadel site. Do these accords indicate direct connections between Southern Germany and the Ardèche, via the Rhine and Rhône valleys? Is this a regionally and temporally limited phenomenon or are the mythic subjects of that period profoundly different from later ones, when horses and bison were as dominant as rhinoceroses and felines earlier?

Finally, both subjects and great age of the paintings in the Chauvet Cave are at odds with A. Leroi-Gourhan’s theories, which have formed a cornerstone for research on prehistoric art since the appearance of his major monograph in 1965. His Style I, which corresponds to the Aurignacians, can now only be applied to archaic sites, mostly located in the Dordogne. The new find does not fit into his framework at all. The general organization of pictures within the cave, and particularly the composition of the various panels, with felines and rhinoceroses in a dominant central position, goes contrary to the long-accepted theories of Leroi-Gourhan. For him, felines, for instance, should only appear on the borders of panels, in the entrance or in the back of a cave.

At present, the exploration of the Chauvet Cave is only beginning. In the years to follow, massive amounts of information will surely be added to the initial data, and more surprises are probably to follow. Meanwhile, the importance and originality of this cave in the Ardèche are such that even at this preliminary stage, it seems certain that our understanding of the earliest artistic statements of humanity will advance a decisive step, as it was also the case after the discoveries of Altamira and Lascaux.

The Study of the Cave

On 6 December 1995, following a suggestion from the Conseil national de la recherche archéologique, the Minister of Culture launched an invitation for international bids for the scientific investigation of the Chauvet Cave. The jury charged with examining the proposals consisted of the vice president of the Conseil national de la recherche archéologique, as well as eight prehistorians, among them one German and one Spaniard. The jury met on 31 May 1996.

After interviewing the applicants, the jury voted unanimously, in secret ballot, to approve the project proposed by Jean Clottes. The team he directs, assisted by Jean-Michel Geneste, curator of the Lascaux Cave, comprises experts in numerous disciplines: cave art, tracks and imprints, palynology, paleontology, geology, climatology. Moreover, there are specialists on Paleolithic environmental conditions, and laboratory specialists for all sorts of analyses (speleo thems, algae, DNA, pigments), and the dating of samples. Furthermore, an international panel of consultants was formed.

The Chauvet Cave - Part 3 2
Control device for the stability of the sedimentary slopes

The study will last many years. It begun in May of 1998 after climatological studies had been realized. The cave is permanently under apparatus surveillance to measure its climate (moisture, temperature, Co2). Two research campaigns, of 15 days each, are planned for every year. Important installations are being made : a suitable entrance and safety measures ; installation of footbridges to avoid damaging the ground. They will allow the research but the cave shall never be open to the public. At the end of the 99 spring campaign, 447 depictions of animals were counted.

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