Chauvet Cave

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Cave lions

Photo: Bulletin May 25 1999

This was a mind blowing article which seems to corroborate everything Jean has said about cavebears, horses, bison, cave lions, mammoths, rhinos.

From the Bulletin (Australian weekly magazine) May 25 1999 Insert from Newsweek. pp100-102

By Sharon Begley

Standing before the hanging rock deep inside the damp cave, archeologist Yanik Le Guillou had a brainstorm: he would mount the digital camera on a 10-foot-long pole, manoeuvre it around and past the rock, turn the whole contraption just so, and … snap! capture on film whatever was hidden on the wall behind. On the first try, the scientists cut off the head of what looked like a painting of a bison. On the second try they cut off its feet.Finally they captured the whole animal-it was now looking more like a musk ox or a rhinoceros without horns -and the next day bagged even bigger quarry: painted next to the beast were a lion and a mammoth, powerful animals that are almost as rare in Paleolithic cave art as they are on the streets of Paris.

Running Bison. The artist has shown movement by drawing extra legs.

Photo: Time Magazine 13th Feb 1995

Prehistoric painters had been thought to mostly paint non threatening animals, not predators like these cave lions.

Photo: Time Magazine 13th Feb 1995

It was like peering into the inner sanctum of an art gallery where the dealer kept the best works for his best customers. And although the Grotte Chauvet, in southeast France, was no gathering spot for Stone Agers drinking white wine and nibbling canapes, it came close: for thousands of years, archeologists now think, people returned to the grotto again and again on what seems to have been a spiritual pilgrimage.

No one is sure what these spots are supposed to represent.

Photo: Time Magazine 13th Feb 1995

This bear skull was placed with evident care atop a slab of rock, with fragments of many more skulls on the floor nearby.

Photo: Time Magazine 13th Feb 1995

The Grotte Chauvet is one of hundreds of natural caverns cut into the pale limestonecliffs that form the Ardeche Gorge.

But it is unique. Its stone etchings and 416 paintings -a dozen more were discovered in the 15-day expedition that began last week-are, at 32,000 years, the oldest cave art known to science. The find consists of mural after mural of bold lions, leaping horses, pensive owls and charging rhinoceroses that together make up a veritable Louvre of Paleolithic art


Although Jean-Marie Chauvet and friends stumbled upon the cave in 1994, for years exploration had been blocked by lawsuits over who owned the rights to the grotto. Finally, archeologist Jean Clottes, a science adviser to France’s Ministry of Culture, won permission to lead a team into the cave in 1998. Last week he and a dozen colleagues returned, seeking clues to the social structure, mind-sets and spiritual beliefs of the ancient artists.

They certainly left behind enough clues. A string of three chambers, 1,700 feet long, as well as one connecting gallery and three vestibules, are all covered with masterworks breathtaking in their use of perspective (as in overlapping mammoths) and shading, techniques that were supposedly not invented until millenniums later. And eons before Seurat got the idea Stone Age artists had invented pointillism: one animal, probably a bison, is composed of nothing but red dots. Most striking, however, is that the artists had a thing for rhinos, lions, cave bears and mammoths.


In contrast, most cave art depicts hunted animals. “Out of these people’s whole bestiary, the artists chose predatory, dangerous animals,” says archeologist Margaret Conkey of the University of California, Berkeley. By painting species that virtually never wound up on the Paleolithic menu but which “symbolized danger, strength and power,” says Clottes, the artists may have been attempting ‘to capture the essence of’ the animals.

Like bemused gallery goers, Clottes’s team spends long hours staring at a painting and asking, what – does it mean? One clue comes from how the images are integrated into the walls. In the “Goldilocks” chamber, the missing hindquarters of a cave bear drawn in red ochre seem to lie within rather than on the rock. “The bear seems to come out of the wall,” says Clottes. And last week Clottes’s team discovered two painted ibexes in the same chamber. The horns of one are actually cracks in the wall which the artist scraped and enlarged. “To these people’s way of thinking, those animal spirits were in the walls,” says Clottes. Painting them, the artists may have believed, allowed the power within to seep into the real world.

Wall showing various animals

Photo: Time Magazine 13th Feb 1995

Hand silhouette

Other hints of the cave’s spiritual role include engravings of two large pubic triangles-symbols of fertility? -and a creature with human legs but the head and torso of a bison, suggesting that people hoped to incorporate within themselves some of the animals’ power. The cave bear in particular may have had special meaning. The presence of 55 ancient bear skulls, including one carefully placed on a fallen rock as if on an altar, suggests a cult of the cave bear. And that may explain why the cave artists chose Chauvet: dozens of hollows in the floor indicate that the enormous bears hibernated there. People returned time and again to view the works.

On the 30-foot-long “panel of the horses,” the charcoal marks of torches being knocked against the wall were made after the paintings, says Conkey: the marks are superimposed on the mineral sheen that covers the figures. If painting was the first step in a spiritual quest, perhaps, then paying homage to the works was the second.

Fighting Rhinos

Charcoal taken from the two fighting rhinos produced radiocarbon dates of around

31000-32000 BP

 Doing cave archeology still means roughing it. Base camp is a 25-foot-deep cave strewn with clothes, equipment and baguettes. But since the discovery of the Lascaux painted caves in 1940, the work has gone high-tech. Clottes’s team is photographing the paintings and etchings with a regular 35-mm, a digital camera and an infrared camera, which picks up the red-ochre paint better than standard optical devices. Back at the research base in the valley, the team scans or downloads the photos into computers, which can brighten the colours, pump up the contrast or manipulate the image. That technique has helped explain two arrays of red dots that seem unique to Chauvet. Using a scanner, the archeologists fed images of the dots into a computer. A program superimposed arrays of hands onto the dots. The best fit to an array of 48 dots is a sequence of handprints made by an adolescent or a short woman. A panel of 92 dots was probably the handiwork of a tall man. The presence of people of different ages and sexes suggests either a communal experience or masters passing their secrets on to apprentices. Even 32,000 years ago, art was created for more than art’s sake.

With Dana Thomas at the Grotte Chauvet



Doubt cast on age of oldest human art

If the rock art in the Chauvet cave is 30,000 years old, it is the most ancient example of human art in existence and the implications for the evolution of culture are immense. This date is accepted and celebrated by archaeologists. But could it be wrong?

“I would be astounded if this date proves to be correct,” leading archaeologist Paul Bahn says now. “It flies in the face of all we know about ice-age art.” He has reignited the debate about the age of the paintings at Chauvet by questioning the science that says they are so old. The controversy is currently dividing the archaeology community.

The Chauvet cave was discovered in a valley in southern France in 1994. Its walls are a spectacular gallery of prehistoric art and the depictions of wild animals – rhino, lions and bison among others – are so sophisticated that specialists in ice-age art first assumed they must be relatively recent. Certain features, such as animals shown face on, also suggested that the cave paintings were about 15,000 years old.

But a few months later, tiny samples of black charcoal were scraped from some of the pictures and sent away for radiocarbon dating. The date that came back from the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Science (LSCE) in Gif-sur-Yvette, France, shocked everyone. It suggested that the paintings dated to the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic era, around 30,000 years ago (New Scientist print edition, 13 July 1996).

Picasso or Michelangelo

People are generally wary of stylistic dating, explains Paul Pettitt, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford. So once the more “scientific” radiocarbon results were available, most researchers dismissed the more recent date suggested by the paintings themselves.

Instead the carbon data was used to support the revolutionary theory that sophisticated art developed extremely rapidly once modern humans arrived in Europe, and archaeologists who thought culture evolved over millennia were sidelined.

There is good reason to doubt chronologies based purely on style, admits Chris Witcombe, an art historian at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. He explains the difficulty with an analogy: “Imagine you are living in the distant future and only two objects survive from a lost and forgotten past: a painting by Picasso and a painting by Michelangelo. Which is the earlier work and which the later?”

But archaeologists must also be wary of radiocarbon dates, argue Pettitt and Bahn in a paper that appeared in Antiquity last month. Bahn’s suspicions were aroused when he translated the latest coffee-table book on the Chauvet cave into English. Around 30 radiocarbon ages are presented in this book, but the measurements were all made at the same French laboratory. Using results from only one team, however skilled, just is not scientific, says Bahn.

Worse, the same laboratory is currently embroiled in an argument over the age of the artwork in another cave, Candamo in Spain. They dated black dots on its walls to 30,000 years ago, but Geochron Laboratories in Cambridge, Massachusetts, estimated the age of a second sample to be just half that.

The point is that carbon dating rock art is difficult. Because the samples tend to be incredibly tiny, it is difficult to measure the number of carbon-14 atoms relative to other carbon isotopes – the key ratio for pinning down the age.

“Everybody agrees there are problems,” says Marvin Rowe, who heads a radiocarbon-dating lab at Texas A&M University in College Station. Contamination from groundwater or rock scrapings may further confuse the results.

Jean Clottes, the archaeologist at the French Ministry of Culture who led the team exploring the cave, stands by his Chauvet results. But he has agreed to send Rowe a sample of charcoal from the cave floor, so that they can compare their results. This is crucial, says Pettitt. “We are not saying the dates are necessarily incorrect, but they need to be checked.”

Ancient paintings challenge old wisdom on the history of art

Europe’s oldest cave paintings – a menagerie of lions, rhinos, bears and panthers drawn at least 30,000 years ago – are so sophisticated that they may force scientists to think again about the origins of art.

New radiocarbon datings of the Chauvet cavern paintings in Ardeche, France, have confirmed that their Stone Age creators were as skilled as painters 15,000 years later.

The hundreds of animal paintings and engravings discovered in 1996 near Vallon Pont d’Arc are among the most spectacular in the world.

They include the only known cave paintings of a prehistoric panther and owl, alongside images of hyenas, mountain goats, buffaloes, lions, mammoths, deer, bears and a woolly rhino.

The painters were probably the Aurignacians, an early group of modern European homo sapiens skilled at carving.

A team of researchers led by Dr Helene Valladas of the Climate and Environmental Sciences Laboratory at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Gif sur Yvette used carbon dating to confirm the age of the paintings at between 29,000 and 32,000 years. The team believes that the art, which incorporates features in the rock walls, is as sophisticated as that in the more famous caves of Lascaux, near the Pyrenees, painted during the Magdalenian period, 15,000 years ago.                                                                                                                     ‘We have derived new radiocarbon dates for the drawings that decorate the Chauvet cave which confirm that even 30,000 years ago Aurignacian artists, already known as accomplished carvers, could create masterpieces comparable to the best Magdalenian art,’ they report in Nature.


‘Prehistorians, who have traditionally interpreted the evolution of prehistoric art as a steady progression from simple to more complex representations, may have to reconsider existing theories of the origins of art.’

The caves have challenged the conventional theory of the evolution of art, which states that it had crude beginnings in the Aurignacian period followed by gradual progress over thousands of years. The age of cave paintings used to be worked out by their subject matter, but dating based on the charcoal or pigment has become more precise in recent years. Scientists can also date the smudges of soot from torches used by the prehistoric artists.

The Telegraph, London

Archaeologist at Last Wins Battle With France

Government Worker Eligible for Rights, Royalties in His 1994 Discovery of Prehistoric Drawings

By Dana Thomas Special to The Washington Post Saturday, July 25, 1998; Page A15

LYON, France-Jean-Marie Chauvet, the French government archaeological official who discovered the oldest known prehistoric cave paintings, has been vindicated after more than three years of legal wrangling. An investigating magistrate here concluded this week that government papers stating that Chauvet was on official assignment when he stumbled upon the caves in December 1994 were backdated, as Chauvet has long claimed. Three senior Ministry of Culture officials have been charged with falsifying the documents. Chauvet, who was an employee of the regional Ministry of Culture, has insisted that he was on Christmas vacation in the mountainous Ardeche region of southeast France when he discovered a half-mile labyrinth of caves containing paintings and etchings of rhinos, horses, woolly mammoths and wild cats.

The accomplished depictions date to the Upper Paleolithic period more than 30,000 years ago, studies later revealed. Chauvet took photographs and made a videotape, which the Ministry of Culture used at a news conference to announce the find. The ministry also distributed the images via a photo agency and on the Internet, maintaining that Chauvet was officially working when he found the prehistoric treasure and therefore not entitled to any royalties or reprint rights. Government officials offered the ‘temporary authorization for archaeological prospecting,’ dated Dec. 14, 1994, as proof. Chauvet challenged the government’s assertion. And this week, investigating magistrate Gilbert Emery concluded the document had been forged. He indicted Patrice Beghain, the regional director of cultural affairs in the southeast Rhone-Alpes region at the time of the discovery, and Jean-Pierre Daugas, the regional archaeological curator, on charges of forging documents. Maryvonne de Saint-Pulgent, a former head of the Ministry of Culture’s heritage department, was charged with complicity.

They will be tried later this year, and if found guilty, could be sentenced from six months to three years in prison. ‘They flip-flopped,’ said Jean-Robert N’Guyen Phung, Chauvet’s attorney, of the three government officials. ‘First, they insisted the paper was authentic. Then they admitted that it was false but said that they forged it for good reason: so Mr. Chauvet could be reimbursed for the expenses he incurred while exploring the cave. This was a grotesque argument. Mr. Chauvet only had $800 in expenses.’                                         The government earned thousands of dollars in royalties on Chauvet’s images, N’Guyen Phung said. N’Guyen Phung does not expect the three government officials will serve jail time. ‘And that’s not why Mr. Chauvet filed charges,’ he said, adding ‘There’s a moral question. We want these political appointees who live privileged lives to stop treating the little people as peasants.’ Once the criminal trial has concluded, N’Guyen Phung expects to press civil charges. ‘It is inconceivable that [Chauvet] can’t benefit financially from the books that he helped write, the images he made that have been distributed all over the world, and the archaeological park that will be built on the site,’ the lawyer said. The government plans to appoint a mediator in the next few months to settle monetary compensation from past sales of Chauvet’s images.

Cave Lions

Photo: Bulletin May 25 1999

This was a mind blowing article which seems to corroborate everything Jean has said about cavebears, horses, bison, cave lions, mammoths, rhinos.

From the Bulletin (Australian weekly magazine) May 25 1999 Insert from Newsweek. pp100-102

By Sharon Begley