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Chauvet Cave (France)

Upper Paleolithic Rockshelter in the Ardeches

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Chauvet Cave Lions

Photograph of a group of lions, painted on the walls of Chauvet Cave in France, at least 27,000 years ago.

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Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

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Chauvet Cave (also known as Chauvet-Pont d'Arc) is currently the oldest known rock art site in the world, apparently dating to the Aurignacian period in France, about 30,000-32,000 years ago. The cave is located in the Pont-d'Arc Valley of Ardèche, France, at the entrance of the Ardèche gorges between the Cevennes and Rhone valleys. It extends horizontally for nearly 500 meters (~1,650 feet) into the earth, and consists of two main rooms separated by a narrow hallway.

Paintings at Chauvet Cave

Over 420 paintings have been documented in the cave, including numerous realistic animals (reindeer, horses, aurochs, rhinocerus, bison, lions, cave bears among others), human hand prints, and abstract dot paintings. The paintings in the front hall are primarily red, created with the liberal applications of red ochre, while the back hall are mainly black designs, drawn with charcoal.

The paintings at Chauvet are highly realistic, which is unusual for this period in paleolithic rock art. In one famous panel (a little bit is shown above) an entire pride of lions is illustrated, and the feeling of movement and power of the animals is tangible even in photographs of the cave taken in poor light and at low resolution.

Archaeology and Chauvet Cave

The preservation in the cave is remarkable. Archaeological material in Chauvet cave's deposits include thousands of animal bones, including the bones of at least 190 cave bears (Ursus spelaeus). The remains of hearths, an ivory spearhead and a human footprint have all been identified within the cave's deposits.

Chauvet Cave was discovered in 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet; the relatively recent discovery of this remarkably intact cave painting site has allowed researchers to closely control the excavations using modern methods. In addition, the researchers have worked to protect the site and its contents. Since 1996, the site has been under investigation by an international team led by Jean Clottes, combining geology, hydrology, paleontology, and conservation studies; and, since that time, it has been closed to the public, to preserve its fragile beauty.

Dating Chauvet

The dating of Chauvet cave is based on 46 AMS radiocarbon dates taken on tiny pieces of paint from the walls, conventional radiocarbon dates on human and animal bone, and Uranium/Thorium dates on speleotherms (stalagmites).

The deep age of the paintings and their realism has led in some circles to a scholarly revision of the notion of paleolithic cave art styles: since radiocarbon dates are a more recent technology than the bulk of cave art studies, codified cave art styles are based on stylistic changes. Using this measure, Chauvet's art is closer to Solutrean or Magdalenian in age, at least 10,000 years later than the dates suggest. Paul Pettitt has questioned the dates, arguing that the radiocarbon dates within the cave are earlier than the paintings themselves, which he believes are Gravettian in style and date to no earlier than about 27,000 years ago.

Additional radiocarbon dating of the cave bear population continues to support the original date of the cave: the bone dates all fall between 37,000 and 29,000 years old. Further, samples from a nearby cave support the idea that cave bears may have been extinct in the region by 29,000 years ago. That would mean that the paintings, which include cave bears, must be at least 29,000 years old.

One possible explanation for the stylistic sophistication of Chauvet's paintings is that perhaps there was another entrance to the cave, that allowed later artists access to the cave walls. A study of the geomorphology of the cave vicinity published in 2012 (Sadier and colleagues 2012), argues that the cliff overhanging the cave collapsed repeatedly beginning 29,000 years ago, and sealed the only entrance at least 21,000 years ago. No other cave access point has ever been identified, and given the morphology of the cave, none is likely to be found. These findings do not resolve the Aurignacian/Gravettian debate, although even at 21,000 years of age, Chauvet cave remains the oldest known cave painting site.

Werner Herzog and Chauvet Cave

In late 2010, film director Werner Herzog presented a documentary film of Chauvet Cave, shot in three-dimensions, at the Toronto film festival. The film, Cave of the Forgotten Dreams, premiered in limited movie houses in the United States on April 29, 2011.

Sources

This glossary entry is part of the About.com Guide to Prehistoric Cave Art, and the Guide to the Upper Paleolithic. See page two for the scholarly sources used for this article.

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