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Chauvet Cave

It has been almost two decades since the Chauvet Cave was discovered, revealing some of the most beautiful and important Palaeolithic art in the world; across its walls danced paintings of mammoths, lions, panthers and woolly rhinoceroses dating as far back as 35,000BCE. Written by : Amy Quinn

Located in the South of France, the cave was fortuitously uncovered in 1994 by three speleologists investigating a current of air originating from a hillside in the Gorges de l’Ardèche. Sealed off by a landslide 25,000 years earlier, Christian Hillaire, Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Jean-Marie Chauvet, the park ranger for whom the cave was named, became the first modern people to view the work of the some of the world’s first artists. (1)

Hillaire recalled his first sight of the decorated walls, describing it as “a very powerful experience”, and knew immediately that what they had found was of great significance. (1) This was to prove correct as Chauvet Cave, described as a prehistoric Sistine Chapel, has helped to dispel the notion that ‘early art was naïve art’ with its rich, skilful and varied depictions of animals, many now extinct and others which have rarely or never before been seen in other Ice Age paintings. (2)

Other evidence found within included hand prints, animal bones and prehistoric footprints. Already marvelously preserved by nature, the cave has been officially sealed off to visitors to prevent the kind of bacterial spread that endangered paintings in the famous LascauxCave in the Dordogne. (3)

For Hillaire and his friends however, the joy of being at the forefront of such a momentous discovery has been tainted by a long legal battle with the French authorities, who they accuse of trying to usurp their discovery.

Without the exploits of the speleologists it is likely the cave would have remained undetected to this day, but Hillaire states that “for a few moments of happiness we’ve had 20 years of struggling with the state”.(1)

The explorers failed to be invited to some of the ceremonies held to celebrate the discovery and they still go without mention in books about the cave authored by state-employed archaeologists. Despite a law dating back to 1941 and a 2000 court ruling guaranteeing them part of the revenue from their discovery, they claim that the authorities have been less than forthcoming about sharing the film and publishing rights.

Some may accuse the trio of being interested purely in money- which they staunchly deny- and it is a fact that considerably large sums of money are at stake in this legal battle. (1) The cave itself will never be opened to the public in order to protect the artwork but a reproduction of the cave is due to be completed at the end of 2014 and is expected to become a profitable tourist attraction in the region. (4)

The three friends were offered a deal in which they would receive 1.7 cents each for every visitor to the replica cave resulting in a €5,200 profit per year on an estimated 300,000 visitors, with the stipulation that they would renounce all other claims. They consider such offers insulting since the 2000 court ruling saw the state ordered to pay them €153,000 compensation for what should have already been paid and a share in future revenue generated from books, films and other ChauvetCave merchandise.

Hillaire and friends clocked another victory last week when regional authorities were found to have fraudulently registered the ‘Chauvet’ name. (1) The French cultural minister refused to comment on the case but Jean Clottes, the head archaeologist who studied the cave, stated that the three had already been rewarded with plenty of money and the privilege of inviting guests into the cave to view the paintings. (1) A select few have been allowed such a rarity, one being German documentary maker Werner Herzog, whose acclaimed 2010 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the closest the rest of us will come to seeing the Chauvet Cave, at least until the facsimile is built. Clottes acknowledges that Hillaire, Deschamps and Chauvet made a fantastic discovery, “but now they should get on with their lives”. (1)

1. Campbell, Matthew “Musketeers Dig In For Cave Treasure” The Sunday Times 14th July 2013 p. 21

2. http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet/chauvet_cave_paintings.php

Accessed: 18/07/13

3. http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/lascaux/

Accessed: 20/07/13

4.http://www.france.fr/en/art-and-culture/chauvet-pont-darc-cave-replica-site-open-  public-end-2014

Accessed: 18/07/13

Header Image : Paintings from the Chauvet cave (museum replica)

Written by : Amy Quinn

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  • Jerzy Kijewski

    Instinctive Cave Painting. There are signs that Upper Paleolithic
    hominids lived only at the level of instinct. 

    http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=38306, Professor of Biology and Anthropology at
    Stanford University CA, USA.
    Professor R. Klein suggests
    a third possibility—a strictly neurological scenario that has gained few
    followers in a field of study dominated by cultural explanations, he says.
    Humanity’s big bang, he speculates, was sparked not by an increase in brain size
    but by a sudden increase in brain quality. Klein thinks a fortuitous genetic
    mutation may have somehow reorganized the brain around 45,000 years ago,
    boosting the capacity to innovate.
    The world-shaking
    transformation of our species probably boils down to a tiny genetic glitch,
    Klein asserts. He developed his maverick notion as “the simplest, most
    parsimonious explanation for the available archaeological evidence,” he says.
    “I propose it only because it seems to be far more plausible and to explain
    more than the alternatives.”
    Genes mutate all the time,
    Klein notes. Mutations can be useful, harmful or neutral in their effects. In
    large populations, even helpful mutations tend to get “swamped” by nonmutant
    genes and vanish over time. But Klein’s proposed mutation would have arisen in
    a small population, where its bearers could enjoy a survival advantage potent
    enough to maximize their offspring and spread the new trait like wildfire.
    “Arguably, this was the most significant mutation in
    the human evolutionary series,” Klein writes in The Dawn of Culture, “for it
    produced an organism that could alter its behavior radically without any change
    in its anatomy and that could cumulate and transmit the alterations at a speed
    that anatomical innovation could never match.”

    • alanborky

      Jerzy Kijewski

      Jerzy the main problem I can see with Prof Klein’s idea’s his
      assumption this sudden increase in artistic activity was a boost in the
      capacity to innovate.
      As an artist myself it does indeed look
      like innovation but I’m too aware of the hostility of adults to kids
      like me chalking images on pavements and walls in the Sixties and the
      bristling hatred many feel for modern day grafitti not to mention the
      continued general hostility to art movements like Cubism etc to not
      grasp the possibility far from being reverenced the cave artists may
      well’ve been viewed as mentally ill.
      I have an upper middle class
      friend who’s mad on art himself but whose wife remorselessly destroys
      any postcards from galleries he smuggles in the house underlining the
      fact for all the middle classes like to think of themselves as arty
      farty they still generally like that art to be esconced safely in art
      books or almost like wild and dangerous animals kept tamely locked away
      in galleries.And the easiest way to prove that allegation’s to
      get kids chalking on the pavement outside their houses or spray painting
      grafitti on their neighbourhood walls.

  • PaleoGuest

    “German documentary maker Werner Herzog, whose acclaimed 2010 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the closest the rest of us will come to seeing the Chauvet Cave” is sad. If you call a documentary that consists of someone who can not hold a camera still for a few seconds and lighting that is amateurish at best, the only chance the public will get- is a travesty. Herzog never giuves the viewer a chance to gaze upon these images without panning away from the particular image and constantly playing with the lighting level. I’ve seen better lighting work done by my 6 yr old holding a flashlight for me during an emergency car repair. Its a shame they did not let a real professional film such a magnificent find.