Cave at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, Southern France

by Chip Walter [1]

It is as if we are walking into the throat of an enormous animal.  The tongue of a metal path arcs up and then drops downward into the blackness below.  The ceiling closes in, and in some places the heavy cave walls crowd close enough to touch my shoulders.  Then the flanks of the limestone open up, and we enter the belly of an expansive shoulder.

This is where the cave lions are.

Pride of Lions' Artwork from Chauvet Cave, France

Pride of Lions’ Artwork from Chauvet Cave, France

And the woolly rhinos, mammoths, and bison, a menagerie of ancient creatures, stampeding, battling, stalking in total silence.  Out the cave, where the real world is, they are all gone now.  But this is not the real world.  Here they remain alive on the shadowed and creviced walls.

Around 36,000 years ago, someone living in a time incomprehensibly different from ours walked from the original mouth of this cave to the chamber where we stand and, by flickering firelight, began to draw on its bare walls; profiles of cave lions, herds of rhinos and mammoths, a magnificent bison off to the right, and a chimeric creature–part bison, part woman–conjured from an enormous cone of overhanging rock.  Other chambers harbor horses, ibex, and aurochs; an owl shaped out of mud by a single finger on a rock wall; an immense bison formed from ocher-soaked hand prints; and cave bears walking casually, as if in search of a spot for a long winter’s nap.  The works are often drawn with nothing more than a single and perfect continuous line.

Herd of Rhinos Panel in Chauvet Cave

Herd of Rhinos Panel in Chauvet Cave

In all, the artists depicted 442 animals over perhaps thousands of years, using nearly 400,000 square feet of cave surface as their canvas.  Some animals are solitary, even hidden, but most congregate in great mosiacs like the one I am looking at now, in the deepest part of the cave.

Hidden by a rock slide for 22,000 years, the cave came to light in December 1994, when 3 spelunkers named Eliette Brunel, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet scrambled through a narrow crevice in a cliff and dropped into the dark entry.  Since then, what is now known as the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc has been ferociously protected by the French Ministry of Culture.  We are among the rare few who have been allowed to make the same journey the ancient artists did.  The age of these drawings makes youngsters of Egypt’s storied pyramids, yet every charcoal stroke, every splash of ocher looks as fresh as yesterday.  Their beauty whipsaws your sense of time.  One moment you are anchored in the present, observing coolly.  The next you are seeing the paintings as if all other art–all civilization–has yet to exist.

Note:  Chauvet Cave is closed to the public.  To get a feel for the artworks in the cave, watch the flawed documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”

_________________________

[1] Chip Walker, “The First Artists,” National Geographic, Jan 2015, p. 38

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2 Responses to Cave at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, Southern France

  1. Pingback: Chauvet Cave: 33,000-Year-Old Movies? | Tired Road Warrior

  2. Jess says:

    i need to track down a copy of that magazine!

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