Meet the People of the Chauvet Cave

Discover the world of the Aurignacians

Entrance of Aurignac Cave(France) (2009-07-29/2009-07-29) by Totor 22Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Where does the term "Aurignacian" come from?

This name, which was coined in 1906, comes from the commune of Aurignac (in Haute-Garonne, France) where archeological material was found in a rock shelter. It is precisely from these artifacts, which date to about 35,000 years ago, that Aurignacian culture was discovered.

Cro-Magnon Skull 1 (1868) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by Musée de Tautavel/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Who were these people?

Having an anatomy similar to that of human beings today, these people had the same physical and cognitive capacities as we do. They are called Aurignacians, after the name of the culture that they developed (see previous question). They arrived in Europe at least 43,000 years ago via the Middle East, and perhaps even the Strait of Gibraltar, and crossed paths with the Neanderthals (interbreeding has been proven between the two species), and perhaps the Denisovan humans.

The Aurignacians chose to settle in areas where they could exploit the natural resources. To this end, they implemented strategies and acquired extensive technical knowledge. These nomadic groups developed an organized subsistence economy, through which they met to exchange goods, ideas, and genes.

Aurignaciens (reconstructed scene) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The child

The child was often the focus of Aurignacian hunter-gatherer concerns. Benefiting from the attention of members of the group, children are educated by their accompanying adults and they would observe activities of hunting, gathering, or manufacturing of objects of daily life.

A child in the Chauvet Cave?

Human footprints attributed to a teenager or young adult were found at the rear of the cave. These footprints are not dated but are certainly older than 21,000 years old (this age also marks the closure of the cave).

Hohle Venus-Fels (Germany) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by Musée de Blaubeuren/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site


In hunter-gatherer communities, women actively participated in the survival of the group, particularly through the gathering of food resources. They also had a special cultural status, judging from the female statues found throughout Europe, including the Hohle Fels Venus found in the cave of the same name (in Germany) which dates back to around 35,000 years ago. This 6 cm high mammoth ivory statue was worn as a necklace, attesting to the existence of a ring in place of the head.

Pont d'Arc 36.000 years ago (Ardèche) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by Anamnésia/Kaléos/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

What environment did the Aurignacians live in?

Europe was undergoing an ice age 36,000 years ago. Nevertheless, the south of the continent had a more temperate climate, where summers were mild, and perhaps even hot at times. In contrast, winters were very cold.

The landscape of the Gorges of the Ardèche was already in place, with the exception of some variations in the river level and the coarse sediment through which the water flowed. The natural arch of Pont d'Arc, identical to what we see today, had already been breached by the Ardèche river. The main difference was the vegetation: there was large flat grasslands of vegetation with few trees.

The fauna was dominated by large mammals (mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses, cave bears, Megaloceros, steppe bisons, cave lions, saiga antelopes, etc.). Most of these large animals make up the bestiary that adorn the Chauvet Cave.

Horses Pannel (extract) (-36000/-36000) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

What are the specific features of Aurignacian culture?

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, artisans, and artists share the same physical and cognitive abilities as us. Their main innovation was the appearance of a bone industry and very successful art. The Aurignacians went so far as to link the material and immaterial worlds by inventing symbolic codes assigned to weapons or artistic images.

In fact, the Aurignacian culture is distinguished by the rise of symbolism and artistry. The Aurignacians changed their clothing and body ornaments on a daily basis, attesting to the desire to identify individuals within the group or even to mark inter-ethnic differences. At the same time, the Aurignacians developed figurative art by occupying the subterranean worlds whose walls they adorn or by producing an equally successful portable art.

Credits: Story

The Syndicat mixte de l'Espace de restitution de la grotte Chauvet (Public Union to manage the Chauvet Cave/SMERGC) thanks the Ministry of Culture and Communication. This exhibition was created as part of an agreement linking these two partners to promote the Chauvet Cave and its geographical and historical context.
SMERGC is the designer, developer and owner of the La Grotte Chauvet 2 site (formerly known as Caverne du Pont d'Arc). It prepared and defended the application package of the Chauvet Cave for inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

SMERGC also thanks Google Arts & Culture.


Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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