Chauvet Cave: Location, Paintings & Discovery

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Chauvet Cave is an important archeological site that has forced us to question many assumptions about ancient artists. In this lesson, we'll explore this cave and see what makes it so significant.

Chauvet Cave

What is it about caves that ancient people found so fascinating? For that matter, what is it about caves that we find so fascinating? Our ancient ancestors were just as amazed by caves as we are, so we can find some pretty cool stuff in caves. Sometimes we'll find broken stone tools or pieces of animal bones. And sometimes we'll find the birth of Western art.

The Chauvet Cave, located near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc in Southern France, is a 400-meter-long cave system pocketed with chambers. Ancient people once occupied this cave, but what they left behind was more than old campfires. The Chauvet Cave contains some of the oldest cave paintings in all of Europe.

Paintings of Chauvet Cave (museum replica)
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History of Chauvet Cave

The history of Chauvet Cave begins long, long ago. A lot of archeological work has been done to reliably date the site, and we now know that the earliest period of occupation at Chauvet dates to roughly 37,500 years ago. Anatomically modern humans are believed to have entered Europe around only 40,000 years ago.

We obviously know very little about the people who lived at Chauvet, but we can group them into two broad Paleolithic cultures of Southern Europe. The oldest artifacts date from 37,500-33,000 years ago. This roughly corresponds to the Aurignacian culture of Southern Europe, a period from about 40,000-28,000 years ago.

The second period of occupation at Chauvet dates from 32,000-27,000 years ago. This second occupation was again mainly the Aurignacian culture, although the last 1000 years may have fit in with the Gravettian period of Paleolithic Europe, a culture that began around 28,000 years ago.

However, the vast majority of the paintings in Chauvet Cave seem to have been created right around 32,000 years ago, which corresponds with the Aurignacian culture's occupation.

Cave Discovery

Around 20,000 years ago, something happened and the entrance to the cave collapsed. It remained covered in rubble for thousands and thousands of years until a group of intrepid, amateur cave scientists came poking around in 1994. Jean-Marie Chauvet (for whom the cave is named) and his friends Eliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire were exploring nearby caves when they heard air escaping from what seemed to be a rock wall. Cavers know that this is a sign that a larger cavern is hidden somewhere behind the wall, so they broke in and started exploring. That's when they found one of the most incredible art galleries of the ancient world.

Ice Age rhinos in Chauvet (screenshot from film)
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The Paintings of Chauvet

What Chauvet and his friends discovered was a vast array of ancient cave paintings, distributed across the walls of several chambers within the cave system. Again, we know now that they ranged from 33,000-30,000 years old. That's older than other French caves like Lascaux, but what astounded researchers was the sophistication and quality of the artistry.

The painters of Chauvet had a particularly advanced method. Working from torchlight, it seems that they meticulously scraped clean the walls of the cave before painting. This gave them a fresh canvas, free of fungi or mold, and also polished the stone a bit, thus catching the firelight even better. This unique innovation shows advanced planning and a methodical, systematic approach to their art. This wasn't a culture of people who randomly decided to draw some animals in a cave.

With the wall prepared, ancient artists utilized charcoal and ochre to paint their images. Most of the paintings were done with brushes or fingers, although some were also made with stencils and liquid paint sprayed onto the wall through some reed-like tool. Finally, when the painting was complete, many artists used stones to carefully etch out the contours of their figures. Particularly in the torchlight, this created an incredible 3-dimensional effect and the impression of realistic spatial depth.

So, what exactly were these ancient people painting? There are two half-human, half-animal figures and a small number of abstract geometric shapes composed of red dots. The vast majority of the paintings, however, are of animals. In total, there are roughly 420 images of animals in Chauvet, including many that are now extinct. They include horses, deer, bison, owls, rhinoceroses, bears, lions, panthers, hyenas, and even mammoths.

A surprising number of animals depicted in Chauvet were predators, like these lions (museum replica)
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