In the southeastern corner of the Massif Central, the ancient highlands of central France, the Ardèche River carved its scenic way through the limestone plateau over millions of years.
Before rejoining the Rhone River on its way to the Mediterranean, it created the largest natural canyon in Europe: the Ardèche Gorge. The cliff walls are dotted with caves, some of them still holding remnants of the lives of the prehistoric people who occupied them. The most famous by far is the Grotte Chauvet (Chauvet Cave).
Discovering the Origins of Art
The oldest known stone age art gallery in the world, and one of the most important, the Chauvet Cave was discovered on December 18, 1994, by three speleology enthusiasts, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire. They had been aware for some time of a small cave in the cliffs, a few hundred meters from the iconic Pont d’Arc. Although the rear of the cave was obstructed by a heavy rock slide, they had noticed a trickle of air escaping from a small hole, indicating that there had to be a cavity behind the fallen rocks.
On this day, the three friends decided to attempt to unblock a crawlspace — and found themselves facing a dark, empty space. Using their speleological ladder, they descended into a vast chamber with a soaring roof, filled with glimmering concretions that appeared to branch off into further chambers. Fascinated by the breathtaking geological wonders around them, they pressed on in single file, exploring almost the entire space. They were on their way back when, on a rocky pendant, the beam of Éliette’s headlamp caught the image of a small ochre mammoth. “They were here!” she cried out.
The three friends had just brought to light, along with some of the best preserved prehistoric cave paintings in the world, an important evidence of Upper Paleolithic life.
Who Were They…
… these Stone Age artists that left us such sophisticated images of their time?
Based on the latest (2016) radiocarbon dating, the cave appears to have been used by humans during two distinct periods: the earlier, around 36,500 years ago, during the Aurignacian era (i.e. the early wave of anatomically modern humans thought to have spread from Africa through the Near East into Paleolithic Europe where they became known as Cro-Magnons). Although the cave shows subsequent signs of occupation between 31,000 and 30,000 years ago, all the artwork dates back to the Aurignacians. The entrance was then sealed by a collapsing cliff some 29,000 years ago until its discovery in 1994, which helped keep it in pristine condition.
The World’s Oldest Art Gallery
The artists who produced these paintings used techniques rarely found in other cave art. Many appear to have been made only after the walls were scraped clear of debris and concretions, leaving a smoother and lighter surface upon which the artists worked. Also, a three-dimensional quality and the suggestion of movement were achieved by incising or etching around the outlines of certain figures.
Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, representing at least 13 different species, including some rarely or never found in Paleolithic paintings. Rather than depicting only the familiar herbivores that dominate Stone Age cave art, i.e. horses, aurochs, elks, reindeers, etc., the walls of the Chauvet Cave favor rhinoceroses and predatory animals, such as lions, leopards and hyenas. The art is also exceptional for its time in that it includes animals interacting with each other, such as a pair of woolly rhinoceroses butting horns in an apparent contest for territory rights.
The latter occupation of the cave left little but a child’s footprint, the charred remains of ancient hearths and carbon smoke stains from torches that lit the caves. The footprint, however, may be the oldest human one anywhere to be accurately dated.
The Domain of the Cave Bears
The artists weren’t the cave’s only occupants. Cave bears, a prehistoric species approximately twice the size of a modern day grizzly and believed to be largely herbivorous, were clearly present when these painting were being done. The soft clay still holds paw prints, some with traces of pigment on them. There are also unmistakeable claw-marks on some of the animal paintings and “nest” indentations throughout, where bears apparently slept.
Over 150 cave bear skeletons were found throughout the cave, and most dramatically, a bear skull was perched on a stone slab in the center of one of the chamber, placed deliberately by some long-gone cave inhabitant with opposable thumbs. Although one can only speculate as to its significance, it suggests a form of relationship between man and bear.
Disclosure and Protection
Conscious of the exceptional value of their discovery, the three speleologists immediately alerted the Regional Archeology Curator, who reached out to the prominent French Paleolithic prehistorian Jean Clottes, then General Inspector for Archaeology at the French Ministry of Culture, to authenticate the find.
Within two weeks, mindful to avoid the mistakes made at Lascaux, where tourists access had irreparably damaged the cave, immediate protection measures were taken, and decision made to permanently seal off the cave from the public. To access it, selected scholars, preservation experts, maintenance workers and rare guests visitors must comply with the latest protocols to ensure the preservation of the site.
The Identical Twin
Just as challenging as the protection of the cave was the answer to a pressing questions: how could humanity’s first true masterpiece be shared with the general public?
An ambitious project came into being in 2007 as a joint effort of the Regional Government, the French State and and the European Union, to create the largest and most authentic replica of a decorated prehistoric cave ever made.
Creating the identical twin of the greatest early-human masterpiece, with its floors, walls, vaults, and a whole realistic underground landscape to host human and animal remains, was a massive challenge. Five years of research and thirty months of construction were needed to accomplish this cultural, technological and scientific feat.
Due to the technical impossibility of reproducing the cave in its entirety, the most remarkable elements were identified first. Using a digital 3D survey of the original, a new cave with a floor area of 3,000 square meters (32,000 square feet) and 8,200 square meters (88,000 square feet) of walls and ceilings was created. The team came up with innovative solutions, using scenographic techniques that had never before been implemented on such a large scale. Despite the Chauvet Cave 2 being two and a half times smaller than the original, the surface of the walls was accurately reproduced to within millimeters. The paintings, engravings and most notable elements, as well as essential paleontological and geological features were reproduced in full size.
The visitors senses are further stimulated by the sensations of silence, darkness, temperature, humidity, and acoustics reproduced to match the original cave.
Located approximately one mile from the original, Chauvet Cave 2 was designed by the architectural firm Fabre & Speller (Clermont-Ferrand/Paris) and landscape architect Franck Neau (Paris) as a discreet imprint on the wilderness of its 20 hectare (50 acre) wooded site.
The site features five complementary parts: the Cave, The Aurignacian Gallery (permanent exhibition centre), a pedagogical centre, temporary exhibition space, and a restaurant-gift shop. A stroll through the grounds leads visitors towards the cave and a panoramic viewpoint located on the side of the building, where visitors can get an idea of the breathtaking views shared by their early ancestors.
Good to Know
- Getting there — Due to its remote location, Chauvet Cave 2 is best accessed by car: from the North by A7 and A49 via Exit 18, or from the South by A7 or A9 via Exit 19. Then take N7 and D4 to Vallon-Pont-d’Arc. It is a 2.5 hour drive from Lyon, Marseille or Montpellier, 1.5 hour from Avignon, Nîmes or Valence. Free parking on site for cars, buses, and campers.
- Visiting — Grotte Chauvet 2, 4941 Route de Bourg Saint Andéol, 07150 Vallon Pont d’Arc, can be visited year-round. Opening hours vary with the seasons and are clearly indicated on the website, where tickets must be purchased in advance. Contact: tel.+ 33 (0) 4 75 94 39 40, e-mail.
- Note — Photography by visitors is prohibited throughout the cave. All interior images in this article are used by permission ©-Patrick-Aventurier—Grotte Chauvet 2- Ardèche.