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Chauvet Cave


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By Jean Clottes Photographs by



Brilliant scenes of animals drawn some 35,000 years ago paint a new picture of the origins of art.



Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Compared with the 20,000-year-old images at Lascaux or the 17,000-year-old creations in Spain’s Altamira, the art of the Ardèche received scant media attention —until the discovery of Chauvet Cave in 1994.

The first photographs captivated specialists and the public alike. For decades scholars had theorized that art had advanced in slow stages from primitive scratchings to lively, naturalistic renderings. Surely the subtle shading, ingenious use of perspective, and elegant lines of Chauvet’s masterworks placed them at the pinnacle of that progression. Then carbon dates came in, and prehistorians reeled. Approximately twice as old as those in the more famous caves, Chauvet’s images represented not the culmination of prehistoric art but its earliest known beginnings. A few thousand years after anatomically modern humans appeared in Europe, cave painting was as sophisticated as it would ever be.

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VIDEO Research team director Jean Clottes describes the thrill of discovering ancient cave art and plans for its preservation. Click Here

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.


In Chauvet Cave, as in other caves of the European Paleolithic, animal depictions abound; yet there are very few depictions of humans. If these Ice Age Europeans could make such naturalistic images of the beasts around them, they clearly had the ability to draw themselves. The scarcity of drawings of humans must have been a choice on their part.

When humans are depicted in European rock art, the depictions are incomplete and unnatural. While scientists have found complete figures in the caves of La Madeleine and Peche-Merle, these are rare. More often, archaeologists find body parts such as hands, heads, vulvas, and penises. Images of a complete person appear rough and hasty, unlike the lively and naturalistic drawings of animals.

Some subjects, such as insects and rodents, are completely ignored by Paleolithic artists. Birds, snakes, and fish are rare, as are owls, hyenas, and panthers (which appear in Chauvet). Paleolithic artists also chose to ignore their surroundings: depictions of clouds, rain, the sun, trees, rivers, or mountains have yet to be found. There are also no representations of huts, tents, or campfires.

Some scholars insist that the decorations of the caves stem purely from artistic desires—they should be seen as art for art’s sake. But other scholars, in light of the choice of subjects, see the representations as evidence of magical rites intended to ensure success in hunting or fertility. Some rock-art experts contend that the drawings and engravings relate directly to shamanism; a shaman in a hallucinatory trance would create rock art to depict spirit beings. Still others assert that the Ice Age artists’ accurate representations of animals’ coats were an attempt to mark the seasons.

—Sue Banerjee


Chauvet Cave
www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/arcnat/chauvet/en/
Chauvet Cave changed the scientific community’s view about the development of modern human’s ability to create art. Moreover, with its prehistoric animal remains and human footprints, the cave has yielded important information about the Paleolithic landscape. Explore Chauvet Cave’s galleries and chambers at the cave’s home page.

Chauvet Research Team
www.culture.fr/rhone-alpes/chauvet/anglais/lettre3/grotte.htm
After its discovery, the French government decided to close Chauvet Cave to the public, giving a professional research team the only access. Go to this website to learn of the team’s approaches and findings.

Lascaux Cave
www.culture.fr/culture/arcnat/lascaux/fr/
Discovered in 1940 by teenage boys, Lascaux Cave contains one of the greatest displays of prehistoric art. Tour this site to learn more about the cave’s outstanding paintings.

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Chauvet, Jean-Marie, and others. Dawn of Cave Art: The Chauvet Cave. Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1996.

Chippindale, Christopher, and Paul S.C. Tašon, eds. The Archaeology of Rock-Art. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Eyewitness Travel Guide. France. Dorling Kindersley Ltd., 1994.

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Lewis-Williams, David. “Paintings of the Spirit: Rock Art Opens a New Window Into the Bushman World,” National Geographic (February 2001), 118-125.

Lauber, Patricia. Painters of the Caves. National Geographic Books, 1998.

Rigaud, Jean-Philippe. “Art Treasures from the Ice Age: Lascaux Cave,” National Geographic (October 1988), 482-499.

Marshack, Alexander. “Exploring the Mind of Ice Age Man,” National Geographic (January 1975), 64-89.

Casteret, Norbert. “Lascaux Cave: Cradle of World Art,” National Geographic (December 1948), 771-794.

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