Chauvet Cave: The First Known Masterpiece of Humanity

Enter the largest Paleolithic sanctuary

Chauvet Cave, World Heritage (2010/2010) by SMERGC / Nicolas ZuninoGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Chauvet Cave is the first known masterpiece of humanity. Estimated to be 36,000 years old, the Chauvet Cave art has more than 1,000 drawings and engravings.

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

Animals are a central focus of the panels and frescoes in the cave, and this art tells stories of our history.

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

UNESCO has recognized the cave’s state of conservation, rich heritage, and the age of its art. As a testimony to a vanished human culture and a legacy of the creative genius of humans, it has been placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

Europe 36.000 years ago (2015/2015) by Anamnésia/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Europe 36,000 years ago

During the last Ice Age, southern France had a cold climate. The geography of Europe then was different from how it is now. At that time, the English Channel could be crossed by foot, followed by a walk out onto the plain of the Thames (a tributary of the Rhine like the Seine rivers). An ice sheet that was almost two miles in thickness centered around the Scandinavian peninsula covered much of northern Europe. Further south, glaciers overflowed from the Alps and Pyrenees mountains into the foothills. In this glacial environment, groups of people explored the terrain in search of material resources. All of them developed beliefs that they embodied, and sometimes shared, in the form of parietal art or portable art.

Le Pont d'Arc (Ardèche) by J. ClottesGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Pont d'Arc: a place of memory

Located in the Gorges of the Ardèche, more precisely in the Combe d'Arc, the Chauvet Cave is in the immediate vicinity of a large, natural arch. About 160 feet high, this unique limestone bridge in Europe was carved through by the Ardèche River.

Humans saw this same landscape 36,000 years ago, except for the cold-climate and the large area of flat grassland and vegetation. Pont d'Arc and the Chauvet Cave are related to each other geographically, as well as symbolically. In fact, it is often that an adorned site is linked with an exceptional object or geological place. This symbolic link "[has] always given rise, in traditional peoples without a scientific tradition, to what we call 'legends,' that is to say, mythical stories, implausible for those who do not share them but vital for groups that believe in them."

Map of Chauvet Cave (2001/2001) by Editions du SeuilGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Inside the Chauvet Cave

The cave is about 820 ft long, from the entrance to the deepest point. However, its speleological development spans almost half a mile. The maximum height in a chamber is 17 m (56 ft). As for the largest chamber, its diameter reaches 230 ft along the major axis.

The Chauvet Cave has a succession of chambers but not all were intensely utilized by people.

Negative Hand (Chauvet Cave)Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The cave was fully occupied 36,000 years ago by people who explored every nook and cranny. The decorated areas and walls were chosen carefully, as well as the techniques used to draw symbols, graphics, or animals. In the cave, there are two distinguished styles. The first part of the cave has red drawings, while the second is mostly decorated with black drawings (charcoal) or engravings.

Little Red Mammoth (grotte Chauvet, Ardèche) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

We know that humans saw topography in the cave, just as we do today (except for the concretions from the post-glacial era, as these were formed less than 10,000 years ago). Our ancestors used walls, pendants, alcoves, and cracks create drawings. For example, it is not uncommon to see an animal enter or exit a natural fissure (opening in the cave wall).

Negative Hand (Chauvet Cave)Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Another observation is that, just like European Palaeolithic rock art where human beings are very rarely found, people are symbolically represented in both negative or positive lights, using handprints, triangle symbols, and finger marks.

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

Finally, the animal figures were mostly made using the same style. This tell us that there were a small number of artists sharing the same stylistic principles.

What does the Chauvet Cave tell us? Beyond the rock art of the cave, it shows that animals held an important place in human imagination. Not only are animals a material resource that people hunted and used to feed, clothe, and protect themselves, they are also an intangible resource for beliefs and myths. In the Chauvet Cave, do you think animals represent these stories created by our ancestors?

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

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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