Benchmark of Aurignacian art
Black paintings dated 34,500 BC
The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc cave is one of the world's finest sites of early Upper Paleolithic art, and its aesthetics continue to dazzle.
Chauvet is noted in particular for the variety of its rock art, as well as the predominance of rare imagery (e.g. lions, rhinoceroses), its use of new creative techniques (e.g. stump drawing), and its overall pristine condition, free of any later interference.
Like all similar paleolithic caves, Chauvet was painted by hunter-gatherers, not settled people. In other words, its art is essentially hunter-gatherer art, created by semi nomadic hunting communities.
The decorated cave of Pont d’Arc, known as "Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc", or simply "Chauvet Cave", is set in a limestone cliff above the meandering Ardèche River in southern France.
It is located close to the village of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, in the Ardèche department.
Incredibly, the cave was discovered quite by accident in 1994, by three speleologists - Jean-Marie Chauvet (after whom it is named), Christian Hillaire and Eliette Brunel-Deschamps - while they were surveying another cave in the Ardeche gorge.
Over several return visits, they found a 400-metre long sequence of galleries and chambers, covered in extraordinary rock art, whose floor was strewn with paleontological remains.
These included animal bones, some of which had been specially positioned by the cave's previous inhabitants.
Unbelievably, its entire collection of paleolithic art had been left intact and undisturbed, since the entrance had been sealed off by a rockfall, 28,000 years ago.
This accidental preservation of the cave and its Stone Age art, gives the site a unique authenticity, attested to by its pristine condition.
The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014.
Due to the advanced quality of its paintings and engravings, which has led some experts to question its antiquity, Chauvet has been carbon dated more than any other cave in history.
In 2016, researchers completed an extensive analysis of some 259 radiocarbon dates.
Their findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed there were two phases of human occupation at Chauvet. One occurred during the Aurignacian culture between 35,000 and 31,500 BC; the other occurred during the Gravettian from 29,000 to 26,000 BC.
Using Chlorine-36 (36Cl) dating and other geomorphological analysis, researchers concluded that the first phase of occupation ended abruptly with a rockfall that sealed the cave for two thousand years.
The second phase was cut short by two further rockfalls, after which no one entered the cave until its rediscovery in 1994.
For more about chlorine-36 and radiocarbon dating: please see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.
So what is Chauvet's earliest art? The study focused exclusively on the cave's black paintings, testing a total of 23 charcoal images from different areas of the cave, including the "panel of the horses", the "alcove of the lions", the "panel of the reindeer" and the "panel of the bison".
It found that all but two of these black paintings were created during the first phase, before 31,500 BC.
[Note: There is evidence to suggest that a significant number of Chauvet's charcoal paintings were created by a single artist.]
A further investigation in 2020, using the new IntCal20 radiocarbon calibration curve, provided a more exact fix.
It found that the oldest art at Chauvet is a black charcoal painting which dated to 34,500 BC (36,500 years ago).
This means that Chauvet contains some of the oldest figurative imagery in the world.
In terms of age alone, rather than quality, Chauvet's figurative artworks are the sixth oldest in history.
They are exceeded only by:
Chauvet's paleoart is exceptional for two main reasons.
First, the content of the imagery is very unusual because most Stone Age paintings depict game animals that were hunted for food (bison, reindeer, aurochs, goats).
However, at Chauvet, it is the more dangerous animals, (lions, cave bears, mammoths, and rhinos), that account for most of the images. This theme is also visible in the Burgundy cave of Grande Grotte at Arcy-sur-Cure.
Second, Chauvet's artists employed more sophisticated methods of drawing, layout, perspective and shading, in their murals, than hitherto seen.
As a result, the cave contains a number of dynamic and powerful compositions, with multiple images skillfully drawn and precisely arranged to fit in with the contours of the walls.
Chauvet also sheds light on the creativity of Aurignacian artists (40,000-26,000 BC).
Ever since the early 1930s, archaeologists have been aware that Aurignacians in the Swabian Jura made beautiful ivory carvings. (See, for instance, the finds in the Vogelherd Cave.)
The unusually sophisticated cave art at Chauvet, shows that Aurignacians were equally gifted at painting and engraving as they were at sculpture.
Curiously, the subject matter of the Swabian Jura carvings (mammoths, lions, bears, horses and rhinoceroses) is remarkably similar to that of Chauvet's murals.
This suggests the possibility of a relationship between the southern Germany and the French Ardèche region, perhaps via the Rhine and Rhone valleys.
In total, it consists of more than 1,000 images, featuring a variety of animal and anthropomorphic motifs.
For details, see: Chauvet Cave Layout & Paintings.
Chauvet's iconography features several dangerous species of wild animals which were difficult to observe at the time.
They include: mammoths, cave lions and rhinos (60 percent of all images), as well as cave bears, bison and aurochs.
In addition, there are some horses, ibex, reindeer, and red deer. Also featured is an image of a panther, a spotted leopard and an owl.
New artistic techniques include: mastery of shading; compositions with a skilful mix of paint and engraving; anatomical accuracy, 3-D modelling of images, stump drawing and the illusion of movement.
Woolly mammoths, for instance, are drawn with an arched belly, bison are rendered in frontal perspective complete with shaggy mane, horses are also given thick manes, while rhinos are drawn with very distinctive ears.
Chauvet's artists also used engraving to emphasize the line and volume of the figures.
For their black drawings, they used charcoal made from Scots pines, and mixed floor clay with charcoal to create different hues. To improve the quality of their charcoal, Aurignacian artists mastered the technique of wood combustion.
For more about the type of colour pigments used by cave painters at Chauvet and elsewhere, see Stone Age Colour Palette.
The images are arranged in specific ways.
In the most accessible area of the cave, the majority of images are drawn in ochre pigment (mostly red), with relatively few charcoal drawings or engravings.
In the deeper part of the cave, the images are mostly charcoal, with far fewer red figures or engraved drawings.
Some animal species are also grouped separately. See for example the "Panel of Horses", the "Panel of Lions" and the "Panel of Rhinoceroses", surely the greatest collection of charcoal drawings of the Stone Age.
Anthropologists recognize the importance of parietal art in paleolithic caves, but they remain uncertain as to the specific purpose of Chauvet itself.
One common theory - based on the artistic subjects and themes depicted, and the fact that Chauvet, like many decorated caves, was not used as a place of regular habitation - is that it served as a centre for social or magical ceremonial activities.
Perhaps it acted as a 'holy place' - an intermediate space where shamans interacted with spirits (the primitive beings or deities worshipped by Prehistoric Man) in the depths of the cave. In such a case, the images would be intended for the spirits, not for other men. [See also: What is the Meaning of Prehistoric Cave Art?]
Whatever the precise function of Chauvet, it represents our common heritage and connects us with the unique creativity of our Aurignacian ancestors. In many ways, it's the first great masterpiece in the history of humanity.
(1) "Further constraints on the Chauvet cave artwork elaboration". Sadier, Benjamin; Delannoy, Jean-Jacques; Benedetti, Lucilla; Bourles, Didier; Jaillet, Stephane; Geneste, Jean-Michel; Lebatard, Anne-Elisabeth; Arnold, Maurice (2012). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (21): 8002–6.
(2) "A high-precision chronological model for the decorated Upper Paleolithic cave of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, Ardèche, France". Anita Quiles, Hélène Valladas, Hervé Bocherens, Emmanuelle Delqué-Kolic, Evelyne Kaltnecker, Johannes van der Plicht, Jean-Jacques Delannoy, Valérie Feruglio, Carole Fritz, Julien Monney, Michel Philippe, Gilles Tosello, Jean Clottes, and Jean-Michel Geneste PNAS 2016 113 (17) 4670–75.
(3) "The IntCal20 Northern Hemisphere Radiocarbon Age Calibration Curve (0–55 cal kBP)." Paula J Reimer, et al. Radiocarbon / Volume 62 / Issue 4 / August 2020. Published online by Cambridge University Press: 12 August 2020, pp. 725-757.