Niaux Cave Paintings (c.12,000 BCE)
Noted for its prehistoric art since 1906, Niaux Cave ("Grotte de Niaux") is a showcase of Magdalenian cave painting, radiocarbon dated from its charcoal pictures to the final phase of Paleolithic art between 12,000 and 10,000 BCE. Located in the northern foothills of the French Pyrenees, its galleries extend more than 2,000 metres, and include the famous cathedral-like "Salon Noir" - with its black-outlined animal paintings and its rock engravings of fish - as well as the separate Reseau Clastres network (discovered in 1970), with its unique series of prehistoric 'footprints' and an extremely rare charcoal sketch of a weasel. Other important sites of Stone Age art in the French Pyrenees include: Gargas Cave (25,000 BCE), Tuc d'Audoubert Cave (13,500 BCE) and Trois Freres Cave (13,000 BCE). Features of Niaux Cave and its rock art are replicated in the nearby Park of Prehistoric Art, at Tarascon-sur-Ariege. To see how Niaux fits into the evolution of Franco-Cantabrian cave art during the Upper Paleolithic and after, please see our Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
Niaux Cave lies in a steep-sided valley opposite the smaller Grotte de la Vache, in the commune of Vicdessos, above the Ariege River that runs through the Tarascon basin. The area's particular topography is responsible for a warmer micro-climate than that of the flatter terrain to the north. Although the valley was occupied by a glacier during the last Ice Age, it began to melt immediately after the last glacial maximum, and by 12,000 BCE its level had fallen sufficiently to expose its entrance and enable access to its underground networks.
Judging by its graffiti, Niaux Cave has been visited on and off since 1602, although archeological interest did not begin until the 1860s. Thereafter tourists regularly visited the cave to purloin its spectacular stalagmites, until the mid-1900s when archeologists Emile Cartailhac (1845-1921) and Abbe Henri Breuil (1877-1961) first established that the cave painting in the "Salon Noir" (discovered by Commander Molard) dated back to Magdalenian art - the final period of the Stone Age. This triggered an official campaign to preserve the cave and its art. A number of investigations followed. Then, in 1970, local spelunkers discovered the Reseau Rene Clastres network of galleries, and, in 1971, a major scientific examination of the cave was undertaken by Jean Clottes and Robert Simonnet. Most recently, in 1980-81, a team of scientists made tracings of all the pictures in the cave.
Niaux Cave encompasses a number of distinct chambers connected by a winding passageway. For first 400 metres or so after entering the cave, there is no rock art whatsoever. It finally appears in the form of abstract signs, grouped together like landmarks or navigation aids, or deliberately placed next to a fissure or other feature. These signs include about 100 red and black dots, dashes, lines, and claviforms and are reminiscent of symbols discovered among the El Castillo Cave paintings (dots) and the Altamira Cave paintings (club-shaped claviforms), across the Pyrenees in Cantabria, Spain, as well as those associated with Aboriginal Rock art in northern Australia.
A little further on is the Entrance Gallery (Galerie d'Entree), which contains the first animal paintings and engraved drawings. Shortly afterwards there is a large open area that serves as a cross-roads.
To the right, up a steep climb, is the huge cathedral-like "Salon Noir", which seems to lie at the centre of the entire sanctuary. Engraved in the compacted sandy clay near the entrance, there are drawings of two salmon (or trout), as well as an ibex and an aurochs. In all, the "Salon Noir" contains 21 engravings incised in the cave floor. Its animal paintings - drawn in black outline and left unshaded and unfilled without any colour - are not spread evenly around the walls, but are clustered together on separate panels. In a deep recess known as the Cul-de Four, at the extreme end of the "Salon Noir", is one final painting. Accessible only by crawling on hands and knees, this unidentified image - either of a human figure, or part of an animal - seems to disappear into the very cave wall itself.
A left turn at the cross-roads takes you to a further fork: to the left is the Gallery of the Scree with its floor engraving of an aurochs; to the right is the Deep Gallery, decorated with cupule art, red abstract signs (similar to those near the cave entrance), bison paintings and floor engravings. The gallery ends at the "kettle hole", and a T-junction.
The northern passage leads to the Marble Gallery, the Terminal Lake and the Gallery of the Great Dome (containing two red/black paintings of horses and a quantity of abstract symbols).
The southern passage leads into the Cartailhac Gallery, with its black paintings, followed by the Reseau Clastres. The latter contains five Paleolithic charcoal drawings - three bison, a horse, plus the famous drawing of a weasel (Fig 3.), executed in ten flawless brushstrokes - items of ancient pottery dating to the era of Neolithic art, and the famous "Magdalenian footprints". Tests show that these footprints were made by children aged between 8 and 12, preceded by an older person.
Niaux's wall paintings are outlined in black or red pigment - a style typical of the Magdalenian era. The 'paint' used had three main ingredients: (1) a colour pigment, either red-ochre/hematite (iron oxide), or black manganese dioxide or charcoal (for more details about the colours used in Paleolithic paintings, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.); (2) a binder, such as animal fat; and (3) an extender, like biotite and feldspar, or ground quartz and calcium phosphate (from crushed, heated animal bones). To apply the paint, Magdalenian artists used their fingers, or brushes made from different animal hair, moss or vegetable fibres. Sometimes, charcoal was used for preliminary sketching purposes, in preparation for the final painting or drawing.
Niaux's prehistoric painters did not live at Niaux, they lived in the Grotte de la Vache, 500 metres away on the opposite side of the valley. So although archeologists have recovered few if any artifacts from Niaux, the Grotte de la Vache has yielded a mass of fine stone implements and tools, along with some superb examples of mobiliary art - including ivory carvings and carved antlers. Magdalenian hunters came up from the plains to the Grotte de la Vache during the winter, in order to hunt the ibex that grazed on nearby pastures when their usual mountain pastures were under snow. Then in late spring the hunters returned to the plains below to hunt bison.
In the small town of Tarascon-sur-Ariege situated lower down the valley, a fascimile of Niaux cave has been constructed at the Park of Prehistory museum, with video footage of dramatized re-enactments, and multi-media museum displays. In 2009, the eminent paleolithic scholar Jean Clottes donated his entire library and personal archive to the Jean Clottes Resource Centre, which is now part of the Park of Prehistory museum.
For other important centres of prehistoric cave art in France, see these articles:
Castanet Engravings (35,000 BCE)
Cave Engravings (25,000 BCE)
Cave (25,000 BCE)
Cave (17,200 BCE)
Cave (17,000 BCE)
Cave (14,000-12,000 BCE)
Cave (c.14,000 BCE)
Combarelles Cave (12,000 BCE)
For more about prehistoric cave art in France, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE