Both accident and scientific surveys have led to discoveries of caves throughout Europe that contain artifacts and artwork created by Paleolithic populations. Temporally speaking, these caves provide information on early European populations for whom little other evidence exists. Chauvet Cave, a relatively recent discovery, is one of the more noted such caves.
Discovered in 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel, and Christian Hillaire, Chauvet Cave is located among the Cirque d’ Estre Cliffs in southern France. As evidenced by skeletal remains, the cave was visited by a number of animal species including bears, deer, birds, and wolves. As for human populations, it is the presence of wall paintings and engravings that clearly marks human intrusion into the cave. Spanning hundreds of meters in length, the cave itself is the product of nature’s ceaseless attention, particularly in the form of water erosion. Ultimately, after millions of years of alterations due these natural processes working on the cave’s walls, ceilings and floors, Chauvet became a multichambered cavern that was augmented by stalactites, stalagmites, collapsed walls, and other geological phenomena. Structurally, the cave’s several chambers vary in size from a few meters in width and height to a chamber that is upwards of 30 meters wide. Collectively, the geological phenomena associated with Chauvet Cave provide details about the effects of natural processes on subterranean dwellings while simultaneously providing researchers with an idea of times during which the cave’s changes occurred. The remains Chauvet Cave’s human occupants left behind give an entirely different picture and temporal understanding.
Remnants of human occupation of Chauvet Cave comprise a variety of artifacts including flint scrapers and blades, the remains of fire pits, and human footprints. Of course, the most evident indications of human occupations are the murals painted and engraved on the walls of the cave. Using charcoal and other miscellaneous matter as a medium, Chauvet’s human occupants generated abstract images of animals, humans, and miscellaneous objects upon the walls much in the way other peoples adorned the walls of caves throughout the region during Paleolithic times. Specifically, animal images found were bison, mammoths, bears, rhinoceroses, and horses. As for the detail of the images created, while some images were roughly designed, others were quite detailed in their outline and overall attributes.
Why were the paintings and engravings created? What purpose did they serve? These questions, which have been debated since the first cave paintings surfaced, remain unanswered. What has been determined, however, are the times when Chauvet Cave was visited. With a large sample of carbon-14 dates determined through the analysis of bone and wood charcoal fragments, researchers discovered two main periods of occupation or rather visitation of Chauvet Cave, the first centered around 31,000 years before the present era (BPE) and the second centered around 26,500 BPE.
Chauvet Cave itself has provided researchers with a large sample of carbon-14 dates and breathtaking examples of wall art that clarify the variety of techniques utilized by prehistoric populations to generate their paintings and engravings. With its discovery being so recent, Chauvet Cave will undoubtedly continue to enlighten researchers for quite some time.
See also Altamira Cave; Anthropology; Archaeology; Chaco Canyon; Dating Techniques; Lascaux Cave; Olduvai Gorge
Clottes, J. (2003). Chauvet cave: The art of earliest times. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Guthrie, R. D. (2005). The nature of paleolithic art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.