A Revelation at 20

A view of paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, on June 13, 2014, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.

Source Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty

Why you should care

Because cave-art discoveries challenge our understanding of our ancestors, and ourselves. 

In the early evening of Sunday, Dec. 18, 1994, three weekend spelunkers in the south of France were exploring the side of a cliff overlooking the Ardèche River, when they felt a draft of cold air from the cliff face. They removed rocks until a small opening appeared, and, after a few minutes, found themselves on the roof a large chamber. As they had done many times before, they descended, one-by-one, down a chain ladder and into a darkness no one had entered in many thousands of years.

Though Jean-Marie Chauvet, who led the team, was the official French custodian of all known painted caves in the region, he wasn’t a scientist. Neither were Eliette Brunel Deschamps or Christian Hillaire. They just knew how to find caves, and they had been lucky, a few times, to find ancient paintings inside. Even so, they knew well by now that patience and disappointment are parts of the game. Most caves are just caves. You mark them on a map and keep looking.

The history of cave art-discovery has continually demanded that we shift our understanding of our distant ancestors, and therefore of ourselves.

Jean Clottes and his team at Chauvet cave in France.

Archaeologist Jean Clottes (far right) and his team at the Chauvet cave in France

Source Raphael Gaillarde/Getty

It was Deschamps who announced, with lovely simplicity, the discovery that would change, again, how the human race saw itself. All she noticed at first were two red ochre lines, but it was enough. “They have been here,” she said.

The first guesses put the art found in the Chauvet cave at around 20,000 years old, in the period when beautiful paintings at Lascaux, also in southern France, were created. But exhaustive radiocarbon dating since has shown that this gallery of human art was created around 32,000 years ago. It should have been impossible, according to the prevailing wisdom. And so far, that’s what the history of cave art-discovery has been: a continual demand that we shift our understanding of our distant ancestors, and therefore of ourselves.

Cave art is a modern concept, one we had to get used to not long ago, along with having our pictures taken and finding out that we are apes, not so unlike other apes. Perhaps it was this last point that made the very first discovery of cave paintings, in a cave called Altamira, so difficult to swallow. This discovery was made in Spain, in 1879, by a 12-year-old named Maria Sanz de Sautuola. For months the girl had been helping her father, an amateur archeologist, dig away parts of the mouth of a cave on their property. He wasn’t looking for cave paintings, because they didn’t yet exist. Sautuola told his young daughter to be careful, not to go too far, then watched her candle move into the dark recesses of the cave to become only a faint flicker. Just before he went to check on her, he heard her scream, “Toros! Toros!”

When Picasso saw the Altamira paintings, he remarked no one could paint like that now, and declared all art since mere “decadence.”

When Picasso saw the Altamira paintings, he remarked that no one could paint like that now, and declared all art since to be mere “decadence.” But for archaeologists, the problem was the opposite: They didn’t believe anyone could have painted like that then, in Paleolithic times. It was just too good. After all, it had required our evolutionarily advanced (read: European) brains to invent perspective in art, hadn’t it? And the skilled use of line and color? If Darwin had proved us to be primates, so be it. But the newly Darwinized world seemed ready to declare Sautuola a skilled forger and his cute little daughter a liar rather than relinquish its special place at the peak of a painfully slow advance of hominid evolution.

Since Altamira, new discoveries have been made nearly every decade, and we’ve become almost used to hearing that we’ll need to again shift our perceptions. Just last month it was announced that a cave in Indonesia holds wall paintings dating to 39,900 years ago: older than the paintings at Chauvet. The oldest known painting of an animal is now a kind of pig.

French artist Gilles Tosello works on full-scale reproductions of the Chauvet cave paintings for the Cavern of Pont-d'Arc project.

French artist Gilles Tosello works on full-scale reproductions of the Chauvet cave paintings.

Source Regis Duvignau/Corbis

But Chauvet still holds the oldest figurative paintings of humans ever found (though these are only partial depictions), and the quality, technique and mystery of the art on the surface of its walls remains unique in its age. No other cave art used the contours of the walls for 3-D affect the way Chauvet’s artists did. No other cave art made by such early humans, with the possible exception of a single painting at Lascaux, depicts what appear to be scenes. And Chauvet is special, too, for its archaeological relics, its ancient cave-bear bones, its perfectly preserved human and animal tracks.

By all accounts, this replica will outdo in technical feats and artistic reproductions even the replica made for Lascaux.

Today, like Lascaux, Altamira, and many other cave art galleries, Chauvet is closed to visitors. The closest you’ll get is Werner Herzog’s 2011 3-D documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. But France’s Ministry of Culture is hard at work on a replica site, due now to be opened in the spring of 2015. By all accounts, this replica will outdo in technical feats and artistic reproductions even the replica made for Lascaux. If this is true, visitors might just experience some small fraction of the awe felt that night in 1994 by Chauvet and his team, or by the four teenage boys who followed the path of their dog Robot into the Lascaux cave in 1940, or by little Maria Sanz de Sautuola, who saw cave paintings before anyone else.

But then, there might have been one discovery of cave art made even earlier than Maria’s — much earlier, in fact. On the floor of Chauvet are footprints left by what archaeologists tell us was a 10-year-old boy. The footprints, which meander through the cave like someone unsure of where he’s going and occasionally overlap the tracks of a wolf, are about 25,000 years old. In other words, this boy wasn’t, in all likelihood, one of the artists. He might have just been a kid who followed his pet wolf down a hole in the ground to discover a cave filled with beautiful images. He was probably the cave’s last visitor before the opening was sealed by a landslide, his torch’s orange glow the last light to touch its farthest walls until a small opening was made one night a week before Christmas, 20 years ago, and the beam of a flashlight shined in.



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