The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in the Ardèche department of southern France is a cave that contains some of the earliest known cave paintings, as well as other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life. It is located near the commune of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc on a limestone cliff above the former bed of the Ardèche River, in the Gorges de l'Ardèche. Discovered on December 18, 1994, it is considered one of the most significant prehistoric art sites.
The cave was first explored by a group of three speleologists: Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet for whom it was named. Chauvet (1996) has a detailed account of the discovery. In addition to the paintings and other human evidence, they also discovered fossilized remains, prints, and markings from a variety of animals, some of which are now extinct. Further study by French archaeologist Jean Clottes has revealed much about the site. The dates have been a matter of dispute but a study published in 2012 supports placing the art in the Aurignacian period, approximately 30,000–32,000 BP.
The cave is situated above the previous course of the Ardèche River before the Pont d'Arc opened up. The gorges of the Ardèche region are the site of numerous caves, many of them having some geological or archaeological importance. The Chauvet Cave is uncharacteristically large and the quality, quantity, and condition of the artwork found on its walls have been called spectacular. Based on radiocarbon dating, the cave appears to have been used by humans during two distinct periods: the Aurignacian and the Gravettian. Most of the artwork dates to the earlier, Aurignacian, era (30,000 to 32,000 years ago). The later Gravettian occupation, which occurred 25,000 to 27,000 years ago, left little but a child's footprints, the charred remains of ancient hearths, and carbon smoke stains from torches that lit the caves. After the child's visit to the cave, evidence suggests that due to a landslide which covered its historical entrance, the cave had been untouched until it was discovered in 1994. The footprints may be the oldest human footprints that can be dated accurately.
The soft, clay-like floor of the cave retains the paw prints of cave bears along with large, rounded, depressions that are believed to be the "nests" where the bears slept. Fossilized bones are abundant and include the skulls of cave bears and the horned skull of an ibex.
Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, depicting at least 13 different species, including some rarely or never found in other ice age paintings. Rather than depicting only the familiar herbivores that predominate in Paleolithic cave art, i.e. horses, cattle, mammoths, etc., the walls of the Chauvet Cave feature many predatory animals, e.g., cave lions, panthers, bears, and cave hyenas.
Typical of most cave art, there are no paintings of complete human figures, although there is one partial "Venus" figure composed of a vulva attached to an incomplete pair of legs. Above the Venus, and in contact with it, is a bison head, which has led some to describe the composite drawing as a Minotaur. There are a few panels of red ochre hand prints and hand stencils made by spitting pigment over hands pressed against the cave surface. Abstract markings—lines and dots—are found throughout the cave. There are also two unidentifiable images that have a vaguely butterfly or avian shape to them. This combination of subjects has led some students of prehistoric art and cultures to believe that there was a ritual, shamanic, or magical aspect to these paintings.
The artists who produced these unique paintings used techniques rarely found in other cave art. Many of the paintings appear to have been made only after the walls were scraped clear of debris and concretions, leaving a smoother and noticeably lighter area upon which the artists worked. Similarly, a three-dimensional quality and the suggestion of movement are achieved by incising or etching around the outlines of certain figures. The art is also exceptional for its time for including "scenes", e.g., animals interacting with each other; a pair of woolly rhinoceroses, for example, are seen butting horns in an apparent contest for territory or mating rights.
The cave contains some of the oldest known cave paintings, based on radiocarbon dating of "black from drawings, from torch marks and from the floors", according to Jean Clottes. Clottes concludes that the "dates fall into two groups, one centered around 27,000–26,000 BP and the other around 32,000–30,000 BP." As of 1999, the dates of 31 samples from the cave had been reported. The earliest, sample Gifa 99776 from "zone 10", dates to 32,900 ± 490 BP.
Some archaeologists have questioned these dates. Christian Züchner, relying on stylistic comparisons with similar paintings at other well-dated sites, expressed the opinion that the red paintings are from the Gravettian period (c. 28,000–23,000 BP) and the black paintings are from the Early Magdalenian period (early part of c. 18,000–10,000 BP). Pettitt and Bahn also contended that the dating is inconsistent with the traditional stylistic sequence and that there is uncertainty about the source of the charcoal used in the drawings and the extent of surface contamination on the exposed rock surfaces. Stylistic studies showed that some Gravettian engravings are superimposed on black paintings proving the paintings' older origins.
By 2011, more than 80 radiocarbon dates had been taken, with samples from torch marks and from the paintings themselves, as well as from animal bones and charcoal found on the cave floor. The radiocarbon dates from these samples suggest that there were two periods of creation in Chauvet: 35,000 years ago and 30,000 years ago.
A research article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May 2012 by scientists from the University of Savoy, Aix-Marseille University and the Centre National de Prehistoire confirmed that the paintings were created by people in the Aurignacian era, between 30,000 and 32,000 years ago. The researchers’ findings are based on the analysis using geomorphological and 36
Cl dating of the rock slide surfaces around what is believed to be the cave’s only entrance. Their analysis showed that the entrance was sealed by a collapsing cliff some 29,000 years ago. Their findings put the date of human presence in the cave and the paintings in line with that deduced from radiocarbon dating, i.e., between 30,000–32,000 years BP.
The cave has been sealed off to the public since its discovery in 1994. Access is severely restricted owing to the experience with decorated caves such as Lascaux found in the 20th century, where the admission of visitors on a large scale led to the growth of mold on the walls that damaged the art in places. A facsimile of Chauvet Cave, on the model of the so-called "Faux Lascaux", is planned to open to the general public in 2014.
- Clottes (2003b), p. 214.
- See the section on Dating.
- Curtis, Gregory, The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists. Knopf: New York, NY, USA, 2006, pp. 215-216
- Smithsonian Magazine, December 2010
- See, for example, Lewis-Williams (2002).
- Clottes (2003b), p. 33. See also Chauvet (1996), p. 131, for a chronology of dates from various caves. Bahn's foreword and Clottes' epilogue to Chauvet (1996) discuss dating.
- Züchner, Christian (September 1998). "Grotte Chauvet Archaeologically Dated". Communication at the International Rock Art Congress IRAC ´98. Retrieved 2007-12-23. Clottes (2003b), pp. 213-214, has a response by Clottes.
- Pettitt, Paul; Paul Bahn (March 2003). "Current problems in dating Palaeolithic cave art: Candamo and Chauvet". Antiquity 77 (295): 134–141.
- Pettitt, P. (2008). "Art and the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe: Comments on the archaeological arguments for an early Upper Paleolithic antiquity of the Grotte Chauvet art". Journal of Human Evolution, 2008 Aug 2. (abstract)
- Bahn, P., P. Pettitt and C. Züchner, "The Chauvet Conundrum: Are claims for the 'birthplace of art' premature?" in An Enquiring Mind: Studies in Honor of Alexander Marshack (ed. P. Bahn), Oxford 2009, pp. 253–78.
- Guy, Emmanuel (2004). The Grotte Chauvet: a completely homogeneous art?, paleoesthetique.com, February 2004.
- "A Chauvet Primer". Archaeology 64 (2): 39. March/April 2011.
- Agence France-Presse (May 7, 2012). "France cave art gives glimpse into human life 40,000 years ago". National Post. Retrieved May 8, 2012.
- Sadier, Benjamin; Delannoy, Jean-Jacques; Benedetti, Lucilla; Bourles, Didier; Jaillet, Stephane; Geneste, Jean-Michel; Lebatard, Anne-Elisabeth; Arnold, Maurice (2012). "Further constraints on the Chauvet cave artwork elaboration". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109 (21): 8002. doi:10.1073/pnas.1118593109. Retrieved May 8, 2012.
- "Chauvet Ponte-d'Arc cave replica site open to the public from the end of 2014". France.fr. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
- Chauvet, Jean-Marie; Eliette Brunel Deschamps, Christian Hillaire (1996). Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave. Paul G. Bahn (Foreword), Jean Clottes (Epilogue). New York: Harry N. Abrams. ISBN 0-8109-3232-6. English translation by Paul G. Bahn from the French edition La Grotte Chauvet
- Clottes, Jean (2003a). Return To Chauvet Cave, Excavating the Birthplace of Art: The First Full Report. Thames & Hudson. p. 232. ISBN 0-500-51119-5.
- Clottes, Jean (2003b). Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times. Paul G. Bahn (translator). University of Utah Press. ISBN 0-87480-758-1. Translation of La Grotte Chauvet, l'art des origins, Éditions du Seuil, 2001.
- Lewis-Williams, David (2002). The Mind in the Cave. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0500284650.
- Clottes, Jean (August 2001). "France's Magical Ice Age Art". National Geographic 200 (2) (article includes many photographs)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Chauvet Cave.|
- The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc French Ministry of Culture information site; includes an interactive map with photos.
- Ancient Grand Masters: Chauvet Cave, France A brief article by Jean Clottes of the French Ministry of Culture, responsible for overseeing the authentication of the contents and art of the cave
- Humphrey, Nicholas (1999). "Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind". Journal of Consciousness Studies 6 (6–7): 116–23. With responses by Paul Bahn, Steven Mithen, et al.
- Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000 b.c.) on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Timeline of Art History
- Doubt Cast on Age of Oldest Human Art abstract of April 18, 2003 New Scientist article by Jenny Hogan
- Chauvet Cave The cave paintings and rock art of Chauvet, with contributions by Jean Clottes
- The Grotte Chauvet : a completely homogeneous art?
- Chauvet cave An enthusiast site with photographs and articles.
- Cave of Forgotten Dreams a film by Werner Herzog using 3D technology
- Marshall, Michael. "Bear DNA is clue to age of Chauvet cave art". New Scientist.