Meet the People of the Chauvet Cave

Explore the links between the animal world and the human world in the cave

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

The world of the Aurignacians

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.

View of the natural route leading to Chauvet Cave (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by S. Compoint/résolute/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Daily life of the Aurignacian

Habitat and dwellings of the Aurignacians

It is important to distinguish habitat from dwelling. The dwelling is the place where life takes place, whereas habitat is the context.

The dwelling of the Aurignacians had many different forms. Our ancestors frequented cave porches and deep caves. They also lived outdoors in camps or below a rock shelter. To these two major types of habitat, we must add hunting stops and stone tool production sites.
The habitat is established by the environment. An area with rock shelters allowed the Aurignacians to leave some structures in place for later use. On the other hand, in an open environment, they had to transport all their equipment, including the dwelling itself.

In general, in order to optimize the habitat, and to conserve energy as well, people seemed to prefer sites protected from prevailing winds and located near a river and trees.

Active fireplace (reconstruction) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by Anamnésia/Kaléos/SmergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

At the heart of the dwelling

The home is a fundamental part of the dwelling. It is what brings together the individuals of the group, promoting social cohesion. The habitat is centered on the home, a fundamental element of group survival. A fire pit and energy source is a major element of the home for working on materials, providing light, and eating, as well as bringing the group together.

The fire pits found in the cave reveal different morphologies. Large or small, often filled with red ocher, and placed on the ground or buried, their structure is complex. For example, the edges of some fire pits may consist of quartz pebbles or slabs of shale or limestone. Some Aurignacian habitat floors are sometimes completely or partially covered with platelets, slabs, or pebbles to isolate and ensure the circulation of heat.

Ocre Bucket (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by J.-M. Geneste/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The importance of ocher to the Aurignacians

Floors in the dwelling are sometimes covered with ocher, a ferruginous red or yellow material. Reduced into powder or broken up, this material was probably used for its medicinal, technical (coloring clothes and the body), or symbolic properties.

The floors of some habitats show archeological evidence of fragmentation, grinding and pulverization of red ocher. This natural material was intended for various technical (coloring clothes and portable objects), symbolic (body use), and sanitary (wound care, elimination of parasites) uses. In that respect, it is not possible yet to determine whether the floors of the habitats were deliberately covered with ocher or if this was the consequence of our ancestors actions.

Silex and Nucleus (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by J.-M. Geneste/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Innovation to adapt

Among the innovations of the Aurignacians, flakes were remarkable instruments for doing everything. These are small stone tools, approximately 1 to 2 cm in long, very finely cut, and as sharp as razor blades. The flakes reflect the excellent technical mastery of the tool cutter. They also revealed a change in behavior and hunting methods that reinforced food security.

Flakes were important elements providing two important items of social information about our ancestors' daily life. Sliced from a stone block (core) and finely carved, flakes were used for work on organic, soft, and flexible materials, such as animal muscle tendons. They could also be used to sew or bind projectile tips.

Some archeological sites contain large amounts of flakes. This can attest to the existence of standardized production and storage of these versatile tools. The production of these flakes in large quantities is a likely sign of anticipation of the technical needs of the entire group.

Aurignacians by Anamnésia/Kaléos/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The importance of hunting

The Aurignacians roamed and exploited vast hunting grounds, probably an area of several hundred square miles. Traversed all year by hunters, either alone or accompanied by the whole group, these areas offered animal and plant resources for our ancestors.

Spears (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by J.-M. Geneste/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Hunting was an activity of subsistence symbolism

Among the hunting weapons, spears were the most remarkable. These are weapons whose manufacture and upkeep required great technical knowledge mastered by the hunters. By launching their spear, hunters can take down a horse more than 30 m away!

The spear is a hunting weapon owned and used only by hunters, probably the majority of men in the group. Finely prepared using reindeer antlers or ivory, spears were made by the hunters themselves who possess very specialized knowledge directly related to the survival and protection of the group. To be effective, these projectile weapons must be straight and firmly mounted. Hunters had to possess and carry several spears, which means that the needs of the group were taken into consideration.

For these people, hunting was a vital activity. It was an essential activity serving to feed the members of the group but also a cultural and symbolic act necessary for community cohesion.

Bison (Bison priscus) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

What role did animals play for the Aurignacians?

Animals were a food resource. Archeological evidence throughout Europe shows that hunted species differed by geographic area. These differences depended on ecosystems and cultural choices. In this respect, the archeological sites show that the Aurignacians of northern Europe favored reindeer while those of southern Europe preferred bovines, deer, or even ibex (wild mountain goat) in steep mountainous regions.

In Eastern Europe (especially the most eastern areas of Europe, such as present-day Russia), they preferred bison, saiga antelopes, and mammoths, whose bones make up the majority on the ancient dwelling sites.

Steppe Mammouth (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

What role did the mammoth play?

The Aurignacian hunters were able to hunt mammoth opportunistically. They were also scavengers who collected morsels. The remains of mammoths (bones and ivory) become increasingly rare, moving towards southern Europe.

Abundant in present-day Russia, they become rare or even disappear in the Iberian Peninsula (the territory of France today has an intermediate status where worked ivory is not rare unlike the more exceptional bones). This raises the question of the importance and role of ivory for Aurignacian societies.

Mammouth (mammuthus primigenius) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The value of ivory among the Aurignacians

Mammoth ivory is one of the most worked materials by the Aurignacians. With this material, our ancestors made tools and weapons and, in particular, portable objects with high cultural value such as statues and ornaments.

Once finished, the ivory object (which is incomparably stronger than wood) probably acquired a value due to its function, aesthetics, and longevity, rather than the material itself.

Vogelherd Horse (Germany) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by Université de Tübingen/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

There is a difference between Eastern Europe and Western Europe. In Russian territory, ivory objects were very finely worked (bowls, weapons, etc.) while in Western Europe the sophistication was less accomplished. This difference may be due to the abundant presence of fossil ivory in Eastern Europe where mammoths were more numerous.

The ivory material depends on animal presence. However, many sites containing ivory do not show the presence of mammoths, thus implying that this material was transported. Ivory is identified as having esthetic and technical qualities related to the ease of the activity involved in working on it. In this context, ivory objects are essentially ornaments rather than tools and weapons. This material can give artisans a special status because of the work effort and its high cultural added value.

Man-Lion (Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany) by Université d'Ulm/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

However, many sites do not have ivory. When this organic matter is preserved, there are adornments and pearls attesting to the existence of production sites, allowing demand and exchange of ivory. This logic of production and exchange related to the value of the material also applies to shells found on sites several hundred miles from the sea.

Reindeer Group by anonymeGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Aurignacians and the reindeer

The reindeer plays an important role in the daily life of the Aurignacians. This small deer is a vital resource of meat and materials. Therefore, the Aurignacians produced many tools in wood and reindeer bones.

Reindeer wood tool (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by J.-M. Geneste/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Palaeolithic people developed a subsistence economy largely centered on the reindeer. This animal, abundantly present in the bestiary of the decorated caves, was a resource of critical products and materials. Meat was used as food, skin for clothing, and tents, tendons were recycled for making ties and ropes, and antlers and bones were a resource for tools. As for the teeth, they were even integrated into body ornaments.

Lion-Man (Germany) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by Musée d'Ulm/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The spirituality of the Aurignacians

The Aurignacians practiced a spirituality that they expressed in the deep caves through drawing and sculpture. Cave art is the most eloquent manifestation of the connection our ancestors had with the spirit world. For 30,000 years, people have been drawing, sometimes sculpting, animals and geometric signs and, in rare instances, human beings. The Aurignacians depicted mainly dangerous animals (big cats, mammoths, and rhinos).

Drawing for the Aurignacians was not a trivial act. This activity required that the artist be appointed by the other members of the group and to have previously prepared his materials and tools for drawing, painting or engraving. The artistic act involved an anticipation of needs and a preconception of the work. Although created by one individual, this work was intended for the group.

Little Mammoth at the entrance (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The interpretation of these cave artistic manifestations remains a delicate matter. Nevertheless, it is an established fact that prehistoric people used the natural reliefs of the walls. This implies that the parietal representations are not random and can be largely determined by the walls themselves. The Aurignacians seem to have only created creatures that pre-existed in the wall.

Feline Fresco (extract) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

To this day, due to the small number of these archeological material artifacts (20 or so flints and one spear assegai), the Chauvet Cave has not contributed to the depiction of the daily material existence of our ancestors. Other sites, which are much richer in terms of archeological remains, made it possible to map out the ways of life of the Aurignacian hunter-gatherers.

On the other hand, the description of the Chauvet Cave and its contextualization in Europe make it possible to refine the cultural context of our ancestors, in particular by considering the intangible and symbolic link they had with the animal world. Indeed, for the Aurignacian hunter-gatherers, the Chauvet Cave was a major cultural site where they could enter the spirit world. Today, this sanctuary preserves the first great masterpiece in the history of humanity, a tangible heritage of the spirituality of our ancestors.

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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