Painted Cave In France Could Force Rewriting Of Human History

Roundup: Talking About History

Dietlind Lerner, The Irish Times, 1/15/05

Deep within the limestone hills of the Auvergne in south eastern France lies the secret entrance to Chauvet, the 34,000-year-old grotto known as"the Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric art". For the lucky few who have been allowed inside Chauvet since a trio of amateur speleologists first discovered it in late 1994, almost everything is off limits. Nothing may be touched - not the 447 animal paintings on the walls, nor the 83 bear skulls littering the floor; not even the 4,000-plus footprints embedded in the ground.

In fact, conditions in the 1,500-foot cave are so ecologically fragile that there are even limits on breathing. In order to maintain the delicate equilibrium of carbon dioxide on which the cave has become dependant, no more than 10 people are allowed in, for a maximum of eight hours at a time.

One Chauvet researcher, Philippe Fosse, remembers initially asking himself:"How are we going to work if we can't touch anything, or move anything?" Yet Chauvet's fame and importance make the draconian precautions necessary.

The last time humans visited Chauvet was during the Ice Age. Dinosaurs were long gone, but man was still working with flint tools when, in around 22,000 BC, something caused the rocks above the cave to tumble down over its entrance, closing what at one point had been a large opening in the hill. Insects visited the cave during the subsequent thousands of years, but until 1994 that was about it. And so Chauvet became a historian's dream: a place where time stood still.

Hampered by a series of complicated lawsuits over who owned the artistic rights to Chauvet - not to mention the land itself - it was a couple of years before the French government came to an agreement with the plaintiffs and appointed a 30-person research team to study the cave. Even then, because of the preservation concerns, the Chauvet research group is allotted only two two-week visits a year.

A typical study day begins shortly before sunrise over the hills of Chauvet. It's a half-hour hike from the no-frills leisure centre where the research group lives to the jutting mass of rock that hides the cave's opening high in the rocks.

The researchers remain in the cave for about three hours and when they push back the big steel door at the end of the long, narrow tunnel leading into the cave, they are exhausted - a result of the dark, the cold, the lack of oxygen and the physical demands of their work.

Valerie Feruglio, a 39-year-old art historian, recalls her first visit:"We'd all seen pictures of Chauvet but when I finally got inside, well it was even more impressive than I had expected. The art work was so emotional, it was like seeing a Leonardo drawing - and feeling him doing it. At Chauvet you feel that close to the artist."

No humans are represented in the paintings, but there are 14 different types of beasts - including lions, rhinoceros, mammoths, horses, panthers, owls and bears - often portrayed in groups, usually in motion. The animals are more than mere symbols - they live and breathe and display emotions. As Feruglio puts it,"The panels are alive, each animal has a life of its own and there is motion, a real story. What is sure is that this artist had a great sensitivity." And a surprisingly advanced technique.

Until recently it was believed there was a gradual evolution in prehistoric art. It was assumed that skills like composition, perspective, shading and understanding of anatomy evolved slowly over the centuries.

When Chauvet was discovered, France's minister of culture announced that it most likely dated from 20,000 BC to 17,000 BC. When carbon dating later placed the Chauvet paintings at two intervals some time between 32,000 and 23,000 BC, the art world gasped at the news. These works were so sophisticated that they had been misdated by several thousand years.

The experts hope to figure out how the Chauvet drawings were executed: how many artists there were, how much time the work took and to what degree the compositions were mapped out. They are convinced that the more they can figure out about the artistic process behind the drawings, the closer they'll be to forming an idea of what life was like some 34,000 years ago.

It is an arduous process. Crouching on a steel and aluminium walkway (built over the path of the footprints established by the cave's first modern visitors), Feruglio beams the light from her helmet through the pitch darkness to take high-resolution digital photographs of the works to be transferred to computers back at the laboratory.

On her next visit, she brings a printout of the digital image, covered with a sheet of clear plastic upon which she adds details of the composition missed by the camera. The artists knew how to use the cave's uneven surfaces to their advantage by incorporating the bumps and hollows into the composition - today these three-dimensional variations tend to confuse the computerised eye of the camera. The goal is to have a perfect record of the artwork.

Their labour has already yielded some fascinating results. To begin with, they have found many marks indicating that the artists wiped the surface of the wall clean with their hands before beginning work. This indicates that tens of centuries ago, humans were already interested in the quality of their work, which would not have been the case had they only been interested in creating a simple representation. Although there are occasional smudges where the artist sought to make a correction, for the most part the works were done with few changes, indicating the artists knew what they were going to do before starting.

Pre-historian Bernard Gilly, a man of few words but many ideas, spends a lot of time wondering about the artistic choices made at Chauvet. For example, he points out that the mammoth was the meal of choice for people of this era, and also that it was an enormous animal,"yet at Chauvet the mammoth is always depicted in white, never in the more dominant colours of red or black, and it is always depicted smaller than the other animals, which were in reality smaller than it." He has spent much time thinking about this, but so far has no answers.

The bones scattered throughout the cave puzzle him also."There are bear bones here, but no mammoth bones. They ate a lot of mammoth, so where are the bones? And what is the explanation for all of the bear bones? And why are there so many paintings in some parts of the cave, and nothing in others - what was the significance of the works, what was the motivation? It's never over - the more we learn, the more new questions we have," he says, before donning his hard hat and disappearing behind the steel door and into the cave.

Archeologist Philippe Fosse is called"the bear guy" because of his specialised field of interest. He is amazed by the extraordinary bounty at Chauvet:"In other caves you have to dig and hunt to find things, here it is like an open book - everything is just sitting on the walls and the ground."

At Chauvet, Fosse and his colleagues have discovered bones from 14 different species, including rodents, birds and reptiles, but mostly there are bear bones: 3,700 of them. (They have yet to find human bones.) The bones are scattered all around the cave and there is a theory among some of the Chauvet experts that humans might have used the bones to mark territory or, much like Hansel and Gretel many centuries later, to find their way back to a specific location.

And then there is the matter of the"bear altar". At the centre of the so-called"Cavern of the Skull", in a low-ceilinged part of the cave studded with stalactites, a bear skull has been placed on a large rock that has fallen from the ceiling. It certainly looks like someone put it there for a reason, but of course this can only be speculation.

One of the most sensational discoveries to come out of Chauvet has nothing to do with the artists or the bears, butwith human need and emotion. Michel Garcia, who studies the foot and paw prints of Chauvet's damp clay floor, believes he has found tracks of what might have been a prehistoric dog. Until Chauvet, the earliest dog prints came from Germany and dated back to approximately 12,000 BC. Garcia believes his prints are around 26,000 years old.

Garcia has also found about 80 human footprints whose length and width lead him to believe they were made by a boy of about 10 years old, walking barefoot - possibly at the same time as the dog - and the dog's tracks appear to intertwine with those of the boy.

So far, Garcia has found traces only of the dog's print on top of the boy's. If he finds the opposite he'll have proof to back his hunch that the boy and the dog visited the cave together, placing the history of man and his best friend back to the beginning of human record.

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