Chauvet Cave: 36,000-Year-Old Movies?

by Chip Walker [1]

In his book La Prehistoire du Cinema, filmmaker and archaeologist Marc Azema argues that some the Chauvet Cave artists (recently discovered cave in southern France) were the world’s first animators, and the artists’ superimposed images combined with flickering firelight in the pitch-black cave to create the illusion that the paintings were moving.  “They wanted to make these images lifelike,” says Azema.  He has recreated digital version of some cave images to illustrate the effect.

The Lion Panel in Chauvet’s deepest chamber is a good example.  It features the heads of ten lions, all seemingly intent on their prey.  But in the light of a strategically positioned torch or stone lamp, these ten lions might be successive characterizations of just one lion, or perhaps two or three, moving through a story, much like the frames of a flip-book or animated film.

Pride of Lions' Artwork from Chauvet Cave, France

Pre-historic Lion(s) Appear to be Moving in Chauvet Cave, France

Beyond the lions stands a cluster of rhinoceroses.  The head and horn of the top one are repeated staccato-like six times, one image above the other, as if thrusting upward, its whole body shuddering with multiple outlines.

Animating the Sense of Motion in Chauvet Cave

Animating the Sense of Motion in Chauvet Cave

Azema’s interpretation fits with that of eminent pre-historian Jean Clottes–the first scientist to enter Chauvet, only days after its discovery.  Clottes believes the images in the cave were intended to be experienced much the way we view movies, theater, or even religious ceremonies today–a departure from the real world that transfixed its audience and bound it in a powerful shared experience.  “It was a show!” say Clottes.

Thousands of years later, you can still feel the power of that show as you walk the chambers of the cave, the sound of your own breath heavy in your ear, the constant drip, drip of the water falling from the walls and ceilings.  In its rhythm you can almost make out the thrum of ancient music, the beat of the dance, as a storyteller casts the light of a torch upon a floating image, and enthralls the audience of the tale.

Note:  Chauvet Cave is closed to the public.  To get a better idea about the cave’s hidden treasures, view the flawed documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams.”

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Chip Walker, “The First Artist,” National Geographic, Jan 2015, page 57

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One Response to Chauvet Cave: 36,000-Year-Old Movies?

  1. garyalison50 says:

    It is interesting to observe how the artist scratched out the background to make the contrast more distinct. The natural colour of the wall was more yellow than where it is scratched, becoming more white. It may be that the previous drawing was a template for the next and then the template was sometimes scratched out giving the effect of multiple layers or movie affect. I’ve had the National Geographic ‘fold out’ photo of the lions out for some time now and this has become more obvious as I have looked at the ‘Great Panel’. Both the adding of the charcoal or ochre medium and the scratching away of the wall, plus the use of the contours of the wall (which seems is very difficult to appreciate in a photo…unfortunately) makes me think of these panels as sculpture than ‘painting’. I think all the variety of animals would have given the story teller endless scope for a variety of stories. But why the giant round feet on the mammoths?? My ‘bucket list’ has only one item.

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