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NEW FRENCH CAVE DISCOVERIES PUSH ART ORIGINS BACK IN TIME: Importance of the Chauvet Cave in Southern France

NEW FRENCH CAVE DISCOVERIES PUSH ART ORIGINS BACK IN TIME:  Importance of the Chauvet Cave in the Ardeches Region—“Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!”

The amazing discovery of the previously unknown Chauvet Cave in the Ardeches Gorge of Southern France has pushed the origins of human graphic art back by several thousand years since its discovery of amateur “cavers” in 1994.  Now more properly referred to as the Cavern du Pont d’Arc, it has only been in the last year that the incredible, state-of-the-art reproduction of this important find has been completed and opened to the public.  The French have spent over twenty million euros in presenting this full-sized, one-to-one scale model of the original cave, which unlike others discovered in the past has been closed to public access from the beginning.  The fantastic technology of the exact replication of the interior cave formations, bones, art, etc. is such that five minutes into the tour of the site, the visitor forgets that he or she is not in an actual cave, even though the reproduction is in a self-contained, above ground, structure.  The entire presentation includes a beautiful museum with computer-generated and interactive displays, as well as other displays and presentations on the several walking paths woven into the picturesque and scenic, mountain-top location.  This new technology is also being utilized to create the same sort of reproduction at the more famous site of Lascaux a couple of hundred miles to the north in the Dordogne region.  It was scheduled to be completed and opened this year, but unfortunately is a little behind schedule.  As a result, my recent trip there in the hopes of seeing both these important recreations only allowed me to take in the Cavern du Pont d’Arc.  However, it was well-worth the two days required to get to it from almost any location, except from the city of Lyon or Nimes, perhaps.

                      IMPORTANCE OF THIS ART CAVE:  Time

Since its discovery and the first dating returns on the charcoal used in the incredible animal graphics in the cave have been made public, some controversy on what this important new cave means for the overall picture of Paleolithic art has inevitably developed.  As a result, well over 200 radiometric dates of different types, including the most advanced new radiocarbon dating techniques, have made the Chauvet Cave the most dated early site anywhere in the world.  That the earliest of these dates would push the first European graphic art back into the Aurignacian Period at nearly 36,000 years has been both a stunning and controversial discovery.  The more sophisticated zoomorphic, charcoal drawings in the cave, which may not be as old but still would exceed twenty plus thousand years ago, would indicate that a highly developed and sophisticated artistic tradition among Ice Age hunters, in southern Europe at least, existed nearly ten thousand years earlier than the more widely known site of Lascaux, for example.  Those paintings cluster primarily around 17,000 years near the approaching end of the Upper Paleolithic Magdalenian Period in that region.  Amazingly, this would make the earliest Chauvet paintings as far removed in time from that important cave as Lascaux is from the present day!  Such a consequence of this discovery is almost too difficult to imagine, even in the world of Paleolithic studies where Ice Age time frames are measures in millennia and not centuries.  However, geologists have indicated that the main entrance to the Chauvet Cave was sealed permanently by rockfall at least twenty thousand years ago.  No access by man (or bears in this instance) occurred after that date. Eventually, a narrow “blowhole” formed in the roof in a more recent time period, which ultimately led to its fortuitous discovery by local cavers in 1994.

                                IMPORTANCE OF THE ART:  Content and Form

The second area of critical importance to the discovery of this new Paleolithic art resource, beyond its surprisingly, some might even say “shockingly” early dates, is the very nature, style, and content of the art itself.  As one might expect some of the earliest art (especially what those involved here call the “red art” based on the content and color of the paint used) is typical of later art found in other sites.  This would include the presence of “hand art”—or painted, signature hand prints in either direct imprints or the more familiar negative outline impressions made by blowing paint over a hand spread on a flat surface.  A large figure, possibly a bison, is also depicted using multiple red-hand splotches near the front chamber of the cave in this early style.  However, the artists (to date at least three individual artists have been identified in the cave paintings) soon began to use a combination of incising outlines in the soft, continually damp clay of the smoother wall surfaces, the drawing of animal or geometric figures in charcoal upon these surfaces, (which were often pre-smoothed using flint scraping blades), or combinations of both techniques.

Like many later dated caves, the presence of different, undetermined geometric designs are recorded in multiple locations.  These include grid patterns similar to Lascaux and other sites, as well as dots in sequence, and what may or not be possible human forms (or simply crossed, directional or astronomical signs some have suggested).  These can be in either red or black, the only colors employed here.  However, it is the amazing range and exquisite detail of many of the animal forms depicted, especially in the main painted chamber farthest from the entrance, which have drawn much of the world-wide attention to this spectacular site.  While the detail of these may not be as life-like in composition and color as those later sites at Lascaux and Altimira, or as detailed perhaps as the bison at Font de Gaum or Niaux, the highly developed eye for detail and the skill with which the artists have rendered them, and at such an early date apparently, lends a further air of uniqueness to this more isolated and early cave location.  Several animals are seen for the first and only time in known cave-art locations, including an amazingly lifelike owl and what might very well be a spotted, snow leopard as well.  Indeed, it is the rare multiple depiction of felines, and to a lesser degree bears, which would assign an important status in Paleolithic Art to this cave, regardless of the early dates, location, or any other of its unique features.

By far, much of the early fame in that art world of early man rests with the incredible panel of the lions, which seem to be overseeing the various prey animals depicted on various surfaces and scales drawn before them.  From wooly rhinoceros to various horse forms, this single panel is a tribute to the vision and the ability to depict it graphically of these early artists. Additionally, there are multiple depictions in various forms, including what appear to be some of the earliest charcoal drawings of the cave bears, which also inhabited this particular cave in some numbers at this time.

 These early Homo sapiens in Ice Age Europe must have arrived with a fully-developed sense of both two and three dimensional art forms into the vast landscape and big-game hunters’ paradise that stretched out before them.  Like hunters in every place and time, they naturally chose to concentrate on certain species in different seasons and locations.  Sometimes they focused on reindeer, sometimes horses, or bison at other times when different migratory patterns found them in different locales.  Still, when opportunity or ritual required they chose to go after the larger, more solitary species such as mammoth, rhinoceros, or the cave bears with whom they shared these sacred places deep inside their world.  Indeed, this particular cave is full of bear bones, skulls, and other evidence of this ritually important animal’s presence.  Bear claw scratches are evident in many parts of the cave.  Some paintings incorporate these into their forms, while at least one other drawing has been scratched over by a bear (not an art lover apparently).  In one instance, the artist even imitated the bear scratches himself.  (He used four fingers, however, instead of the three toes the bear would have scratched with.)

 However, it is the presence of the hunting lions—who possibly must have been both these early hunters’ greatest competitors as well as their teachers, perhaps—that draws our focus and imaginations to these incredible, early works of art and the looks they provide into our distant ancestors’ thought processes and skill levels.  We can take a certain pride in their distant abilities, one that leads us to speculate more about what else we may have brought with us from them over the millennia this cave has now added to our heritage, as well as our debt, to these Ice Age explorers whose genetic material still makes up the vast majority of our own.  It is through the eyes of The Lions of Chauvet that we gaze out into the Ice Age landscape our hunter ancestors saw before them and felt compelled (at least those who possessed the artistic talent that must have been as rare then as it is today) to record what they saw and wished to preserve in the dark, torch-lit innards of the earth.  It was the earth from which they—like us—must have originated and then returned to when their lives, much like the great beasts they survived upon, came to their inevitable end.  At that point, we have also come to believe, they, too, must  have felt that a greater journey awaited them, perhaps to the far side of the night sky, or to some other destination that must have begun with their ritual burial in the earth from which all life they saw had sprung.  Were the animals they drew in charcoal deep in those darkened spaces put there to accompany or guide them on that final journey, to nourish or even to challenge them as they had in life—or were they drawn in the dark spaces for some reason we have not yet, or perhaps can never, fully understand?

One thing remains certain, however, with the discovery and rethinking of our spiritual and artistic past that the incredible early dates of the Pont d’Arc Cave have forced upon our previously held views of our deeper pasts.  That is this:  The sophistication of concept, design, and execution of these incredibly lifelike portraitures at such an unexpectedly early date must inevitably lead us to believe that hidden out there somewhere, perhaps in France, Spain, or some other European country, there is quite possibly another such incredible discovery as the Chauvet Cave.  It may lie buried under a rock slide or some other natural event, but it would then push the earliest dates for the beginnings of representational  art even farther back into our Ice Age past with its less sophisticated drawings in all likelihood.  Or would it merely confirm that our ancestors did not begin to enter into the spiritual and ritualistic depiction of their world view until that point in time when they could reproduce it in a relatively lifelike format? Who can say at this point?  Nothing, however, should come to surprise us.  It must become apparent to someone such as this writer, who has devoted much of his adult like to studying as many aspects of our deep past as possible, that failing to account and then adjust one’s thinking to each new discovery—no matter how out of place in time or our concept of our own past it might be—is something that we must continually be expecting, and even welcoming, each time they unexpectedly present themselves in the future.

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