Was the Chauvet-Pont d'Arc Cave the First Movie Theater?

Marc Azéma takes a closer look at animated images of the Chauvet Cave from 36,000 years ago

By Google Arts & Culture

Marc Azéma - Doctor of Prehistory and Director

Lascaux (Montignac) Caves (1901) by Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection

Prehistoric artists were not satisfied with simply reproducing images of animals or symbols on the walls of caves. They sought to bring them to life by representing them in motion. This was particularly true in Chauvet-Pont d'Arc 37,000 years ago, or in the younger Lascaux, 19,000 years ago. 

Horses panel (Chauvet cave) (2006/2006) by L. GuichardGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

These motions can be discreet like a prone ear or a horse's half-open mouth as on the Horse Panel, or more spectacular like a charging or clashing rhinoceros, as in the End Chamber. 

Big Bisons (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Breaking down motion: the first cartoons!

The artists pushed motion representation to the limits. Some of them, perhaps the most gifted, managed to graphically create the fourth dimension (that is, time) by breaking down motion into several images—just like in a cartoon!

"Quand Homo Sapiens faisait son cinéma" (extrait)
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Animating the Chauvet Cave Frescoes - An extract from Marc Azéma's movie 

Feline Fresco (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Two processes have been highlighted, in particular at Chauvet-Pont d'Arc. The breakdown of motion by superimposing successive images results in an effect where body parts in action are multiplied. 

Eight-legged bisonGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

This is the case with the eight-legged bison running away with a vacant look in the Gallery of Lions and an eight-legged deer which seems to trot along the left side of the Large Panel in the End Chamber. 

Wooly Rhinoceros (Chauvet Cave) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Still in this area, the front end and the tapered horn of a rhinoceros are reproduced several times as if to energize this part of the body, unless it is a perspective effect tending to represent several individuals side by side.

Grand panneau de la Salle du Fond volet gauche lions à l affutGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

In the breakdown of motion through the juxtaposition of successive images, the different positions adopted in time by the animal are juxtaposed on the wall, oriented in the same direction along a row. Galloping horses from the Horse Panel and leaping felines from the Lion Panel express such a process.

37,000 years ago, the Aurignacians were the first modern humans in Europe. At Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, they were the first to sense the possibility of a graphic synthesis of motion: this is the invention of parietal art.

Marc Azema animation
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Sequential Animation: the first paleolithic animated pictures - Infographic : Marc Azéma

Thaumatrope 1 - Fac similé (Laugerie Basse) by Florent RivèreGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Twenty thousand years later, prehistoric artists may have arrived at this synthesis through a rudimentary mechanism comparable to the thaumatrope, an optical device that uses the phenomenon of the persistence of vision: bone disks discovered in several Magdalenian sequences could be tangible evidence of such use. 

The most spectacular is the one from Laugerie-Basse (Dordogne): on the front and back of this object, a few inches in diameter, a Pyrenean chamois is engraved in two successive positions.

Thaumatrope 2 - Fac-similé (Laugerie-Basse) by Florent RivèreGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

If we rotate the disk rapidly using a cord, the two images are superimposed and reproduce the motion of the animal collapsing, perhaps under the impact of a hunting weapon.

Thaumatrope 3 - Fac-similé (Laugerie-Basse) by Florent RivèreGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The synthesis of motion is achieved through this technical "miracle". This would make prehistoric artists the inventors of cinematography, whose main characteristic is the synthesis of motion!

Pannel - Salle du Fond (Chauvet cave, Ardèche) (2015/2015) by David HuguetGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

By giving life to their representations, the Paleolithic artists knew how to make use of their narrative potential from the outset. Indeed, the animals represented in action can be associated with and constitute scenes. 

These scenes can be combined with each other and form sequences at the scale of a single panel, a more ambitious composition or an entire cave. All of this defines the terms of a graphic narrative, some sort of "proto-comic strip" comparable to the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Bayeux tapestry.

As in Lascaux or in other caves, visitors to the Chauvet-Pont d'Arc Cave feel that this Paleolithic art was a real visual medium. The Ardèche cave is teeming with graphic stories whose meaning escapes us (shamanism, myth, religion?) but snippets of the structure of which we can perceive. 

Grand panneau de la Salle du Fond volet gauche lions à l affutGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

This is particularly evident in the End Chamber, and, more particularly, in the composition of the Large Panel. The cave lion is visible on both sides as in the entire Chamber, which could well be a "sacred" place. We see the cave lion depicted several times hunting.

The left side of the Large Panel shows 3 to 4 life-size lions in their characteristic lookout attitude with head bowed and ears tucked back. They look as if they are spying on their virtual prey beyond our field of vision.

Grand panneau de la Salle du Fond, volet droit panneau des lionsGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

On the right side, we can see another scene: an action corresponding to the second stage of the hunt. This is the famous Lion Panel.

A pride of felines appears from the right and pursues a herd of bison fleeing to the left. The lions are arranged on two parallel ranges evoking different planes, the tallest being the smallest and therefore the most distant.

The ears are tucked back, a sign of aggression. Some are growling, others are roaring. The heads are stretched forward and the mouths open more and more, distorting the whole appearance of the head as the predators approach their prey.

According to Craig Packer, a specialist in the behavior of African lions, this hunting scene brings together females and males, and we can see the latter having no mane during the Upper Paleolithic.

Feline Fresco (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Together, these two scenes depicted on each side of the Large Panel constitute a hunting sequence. This hunt is illustrated in other action scenes all around the End Chamber.

Bison Facing Two LionsGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

A few yards to the right of the Lion Panel, there may be a young bison behind the fleeing herd, bravely confronting two roaring lions.

Four Lions - Salle du FondGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

A little further still, lions seem to be watching for bison drawn below on another plane of the wall, as if the artists had worked on depth of field.

Lion eating a bison - Salle du FondGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Opposite, on the right wall, a panel shows a feline tearing off the horn of a bison and starting to devour it. This is probably the end of the hunt depicted on the opposite wall.

Couple de lionsGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Another panel near the entrance to the chamber shows a pre-mating sequence with the female rubbing herself against the larger male. Unusually for Paleolithic art: the scrotum is drawn on the latter and we can clearly see that the male does not have a mane either. 

Felines Alcove (2015/2015) by David HuguetGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

All these action scenes feature the cave lion and succeed each other from the entrance to the rear chamber, following the walls from left to right and observing a temporal logic. 

This suggests a movement on the part of the observer to understand the graphic narrative thus depicted (analogously, visitors to a cathedral or chapel perform this type of movement when looking at scenes from the life of Christ or extracts from the Bible).

Venus - End Room (Chauvet cave, Ardèche) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Composed of all these sequences, the graphic story depicting the cave lion is linked to reproduction and hunting, essential moments in the life cycle of this predator... and of man. The very symbol of life would be expressed through the presence of females, obvious signs of fertility, present near the lions.

The Horses Fresco (2015/2015) by David HuguetGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Chauvet Cave: the first immersive space of humanity

By moving through the underground space, the Aurignacian visitor gradually discovered the moving images that roamed the walls. Thanks to the dynamic lighting provided by their torch, these images had to come to life in their imagination and reproduce stories associated with the beliefs and myths of their culture.

Lascaux (Montignac) Caves by Ralph MorseLIFE Photo Collection

Thus, like the Magdalenian visitors (a Paleolithic culture that appeared around 20,000 years after that of the Aurignacians), walking through the Hall of the Bulls and the Axial Gallery of the Lascaux cave, the Aurignacians of Chauvet-Pont d'Arc immersed themselves in the image and entered another world.

In the Chauvet cave, facing the panel of Horses (France) (2015/2015) by J.PachoudGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Music, song or commentary could have been associated with this sensory experience which, beyond cinema, in a way foreshadows our experiments with today's virtual reality.

Credits: Story

Marc Azéma Bibliography for the Chauvet Cave
 
Azéma M., 2019,  La grotte Chauvet-Pont d'Arc, éditions Gisserot.
Azéma M., 2011,  La Préhistoire du cinéma : Origines paléolithiques de la narration graphique et du cinématographe, Errance-Passé Simple.
Azéma M. et Brasier L., 2016, Le Beau Livre de la préhistoire, Editions Dunod.
 
Marc Azéma Filmography for the Chauvet Cave
 
"Quand Homo Sapiens faisait son cinéma" (When Homo Sapiens did Cinema), 52 mn, Arte-MC4-Passé Simple.

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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