Chauvet Cave Paintings
Prehistoric Animal Pictures: Discovery, Stone Age Drawings of Dappled Horses.

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Horses Heads from Chauvet Cave
dating to about 30,000 BCE. The
earliest example of mural painting.

Chauvet Cave Paintings (c.30,000 BCE)

Discovery and Preservation

Grotto Chauvet, near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc in France, and home to the world's oldest example of cave painting, was discovered quite by chance in the Ardeche gorge in 1994, by three speleologists - Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and Christian Hillaire - while they were surveying another cave nearby. Inside the Chauvet grotto, the trio found a 400-metre long network of galleries and rooms, covered in rock art, whose floor was littered with palaeontological remains, including the skulls of bears two wolves. Some of these bones had been arranged in special position by the previous human inhabitants. Amazingly, the entire labyrinth of prehistoric art had remained untouched and undisturbed since Paleolithic times, due to a landslide that had blocked the entrance.

Fighting Animals from Chauvet
dating to about 30,000 BCE.

Dates of Cave Paintings at Chauvet

Chauvet is therefore one of the few prehistoric painted caves to be found preserved and intact, right down to the footprints of animals and humans. As a result it ranks alongside Lascaux (c.17,000 BCE), Altamira (c.15,000 BCE), Pech-Merle (c.25,000 BCE) and Cosquer (c.25,000 BCE) as one of the most significant sites of pre-historic cave painting. Moreover, its earliest rock murals have been carbon-dated to 30,000 BCE, making them the oldest cave paintings in the world. Although Chauvet does not boast the type of polychrome painting exemplified by the likes of Lascaux or Altamira, this is more than offset by the sheer originality, diversity and preserved quality of its art. According to the French Ministry of Culture in Paris, the antiquity of Chauvet's rock painting has radically altered previous theories concerning the artistic development of Paleolithic Man, and demonstrate that Homo sapiens learnt to draw at a very early stage. (To see how the age of cave murals at Chauvet compares with that of Lascaux, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.)

Big Horn Rhino
Cave painting from Chauvet Cave.

For information on the earliest
carving of a human figure, see:
Venus of Hohle Fels. For the first
therianthropic sculpture, see:
Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel.


Archeology and Human Habitation

The gorges in Ardèche contain numerous caverns, many of which possess petroglyphs and other artifacts of archeological and geological significance. But Chauvet Cave is unusually big and was inhabited by prehistoric humans during two distinct periods: the Aurignacian (c.40,000-26,000 BCE) and the Gravettian (26,000-20,000 BCE). Most of the artwork dates to the period (c. 30,000 BCE), although humans returned briefly during Gravettian times, since when the cave has remained undisturbed.

The Cave Art at Chauvet

Chauvet contains a total of over 300 paintings and engravings. These were grouped in specific ways. In one of the two major parts of the cave, most images are red, with a few black or engraved ones. In the second part, the animals are mostly black, with far fewer engravings and red figures. Also, there are groupings of specific animals: for example, the Horse Panel and the Panel of Lions and Rhinoceroses.

Animal Figures

The most noticeable animals in the cave (accounting for some 60 percent of all such images) are lions, mammoths, and rhinoceroses, all of whom were rarely hunted, thus unlike most other caves, Chauvet is not a pictorial showcase of daily Stone Age life. Other rare animals include a panther, a spotted leopard and an owl. In addition, the cave features the usual horses, bison, aurochs, ibex, reindeer, red deer and musk-oxen.

Abstract Art

As well as figurative pictures, Chauvet contains an abundance of abstract geometric symbols (though less than other sites in the Cantabrian region of Spain), a number of indecipherable marks, as well as a quantity of red-ochre hand stencils and handprints.

Painting Skills and Techniques

According to leading paleoanthropologists, the workmanship of Chauvet's prehistoric artists is excellent. Shading, perspective and relief are skillfully used, the body proportions of the animals are natural, and species are clearly defined with numerous details of anatomy shown: for example, mammoths are drawn with an arched belly, bison are presented in frontal perspective with a bushy mane, horses too have thick manes, while the rhinoceroses have very distinctive ears.

The Purpose of Chauvet

Paleolithic experts still don't understand the purpose or functionality of prehistoric parietal art. One of the more common theories - based on the subject matter of the murals, and the fact that Chauvet, like many caves, was not used as a place of regular habitation - is that it functioned as a centre of ritual or magical ceremony. Chauvet doesn't contain the earliest art of prehistory, but it does house the earliest cave murals and exemplifies the rising cultural level of man during the last period of the Stone Age.

• See also: Blombos Cave Art - Oldest Art
• For more about prehistoric carvings, see: Venus Figurines
• For Classical Antiquity, see: Ancient Art.
• For the history and facts about cave painting, see: Homepage.

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