The Bears of Chauvet Cave

Could there be a symbolic link between our ancestors and this animal?

Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Cave Bear (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Cave bears

The cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) are the big animals that visited the Chauvet Cave the most, making it a major European paleontological site for the study of this animal.

Cave Bear (Chauvet Cave) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Why "cave bear"?

Like some present-day bears, Ursus spelaeus looked for quiet, protected places to hibernate. During the mild season, the cave bear built up their body fat.

It was not uncommon for the bear to die during hibernation for lack of resources. However, it is precisely at the back of caves (the protected areas where the preservation of remains is the most substantial) that most remains of cave bears were found. But why is this bear named the "cave bear"?

Cave Bear (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The cave bear: origin, distribution, and behavior

Adult cave bears could reach a shoulder height of about 5 ft and when standing, cave bears were over nine feet tall. The species had a strong sexual dimorphism. Adult males could weigh up to 500 kg (1,000 lb) – about half as much as adult females. The distribution of cave bears was all across Europe, up to the forested foothills of the Ural Mountains in Russia. They seemed to have favored wooded areas where food resources were abundant. Bear remains are found throughout much of France (with the exception of lowland areas), in southern England, southern Germany, and northern Spain. The Crimea, the Balkans, and the Caucasus Mountains were also geographical areas that cave bears frequented.

Distinctive steep forehead of a cave bear skull (Chauvet cave, Ardèche)Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Although they were carnivores, because of their anatomical characteristics, Ursus spelaeus had an omnivorous diet. At times even entirely herbivorous, as seen by the molars which adapted to chewing plants.

Possessing a skull marked by an accentuated fronto-nasal depression called the "frontal stop", cave bears were also distinguished by a pronounced tilt of their back due to an extension of the forelimb and a shortening of the tibias.

Cave Bear (Chauvet Cave) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

There were numerous bear bones found in the Chauvet Cave which were so well preserved that a scientific team has been able to reconstruct the genetic profile of one individual bear that died 32,000 years ago.

This study found that the brown bear, polar bear, and cave bear had a common ancestor that lived 1.6 million years ago.

Cave Bear Bones (2006/2006) by Jean ClottesGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

4040 animal bones were also found on the ground in the cave, and 3,700 of these were from bears (at least 190 male, female, adult, and juvenile specimens).

Cave bears used the Chauvet Cave to hibernate. Beside the ursine bones, other remnants of the bears are present: bear hollows, polished rock surfaces, scratchings on walls, and footprint tracks on the ground. It should be noted that the people of the Upper Paleolithic moved, and even staged, bear bones in the cave, but it is impossible to determine the intention that motivated these acts.

Accumulation of Cave Bear Bones (Chauvet Cave) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The samples of fossil bones taken from the cave show when the bears might have occupied the caves. Thirty reliable dates were obtained from this study.

Two periods of occupation of the cave have been identified: between 48,000 and 41,500 years ago, and between 33,500 and 32,700 years ago.

The second occupation of the cave by bears corresponds to the first phase of human ornamentation in the cave. However, this does not imply that bears and men were present in the cave at the same time.

Ossement d'ours des cavernes (grotte Chauvet, Ardèche) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

No bear bones have been found that date earlier than 32,700 years ago. At the same time, it is thought that cave bears disappeared 25,000 years ago, probably because of a cooling period that affected all of Europe and the ecosystems. Why do you think there are there no bones younger than 32,700 years old in the Chauvet Cave?

On the one hand, a very unimaginative explanation is that it is possible that samples more recent than 32,700 years ago exist but have not been collected yet. Cave bears could also have been prevented from entering the cave because of the collapse of the porch, which occurred around 29,000 years ago and blocked the natural entrance of the cave, effectively preventing large animals from accessing the cave.

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

The most numerous remains in the Chauvet Cave belong to those which testify to its frequent visitation by prehistoric fauna: with 4,040 inventoried bones (about 90% of the potential outcropping on the ground according to researchers), the Chauvet Cave is an important source of paleontological resources.

It is noteworthy that cave bear bones are more abundant in the deep parts of the cave. The areas close to the porch, and therefore more exposed to climatic variations and predators, were less occupied by the animals.

Bear Bones (Chauvet Caves) (2015-04-25/2015-04-25) by smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) represents the vast majority of the documented remains: there are more than 3,700 bone remains from a minimum number of 190 identified individuals (MNI). However, no connected or loose skeletons have been found. Articulated segments are limited to portions of vertebral columns only.

The bones are scattered in the caves, mainly by natural factors (sheet water flow, bear movements, decomposition, and alteration of bones, etc.) or more commonly thought by human action (deliberate relocation of bones). The most preserved bones are also the biggest (skulls, humerus, pelvis, large vertebrae) at the expense of small bones (teeth, ribs, carpal bones, phalanges, etc.). Apart from the bones, other remnants also give evidence of the occupation of the bears in the cave.

Rocky Surface polished by bears (Chauvet Cave) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

While walking in the deep parts of the cave, in total darkness, bears found their bearings by rubbing their flanks (side of the animal's body) against the walls of the cave.

Through this, the protruding sections of the walls were stripped of clay and the rock was polished.

Bauges d'ours des cavernes (grotte Chauvet, Ardèche)Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

To hibernate in the cave, cave bears created circular depressions on the ground, these were called bear hollows, and there were around 300 in the cave.

Often with a diameter of about 50 cm (19.5 in), the bear hollows are grouped together, creating dormitories (sleeping areas).

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

As the bears scratched the walls of the cave, thousands of scratches have been recorded in the cave, with the largest number in the deepest chambers.

Often associated with areas where the bear hollows are concentrated, the scratches are in the form of three or five parallel grooves with a depth and thickness of a few inches. The average height of the scratches is mostly between 5 ft to 7 ft.

Bear Sign (Chauvet Cave)Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

In chambers with flat floors, long tracks measuring over 30 ft were formed by bear paws to help reconstruct the wanderings of these animals in the cave.

In spite of the large number of identified ursine bones, the tracks correspond to a small number of individuals. In addition, these tracks and isolated footprints exhibit a great variability of individuals like that of the bones. Finally, based on their size and morphology, bear footprints identified in the Bear Hollow Chamber and the Hillaire Chamber seem to belong to Ursus arctos, another species of bear that frequented the Chauvet Cave.

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

The cave bear in cave art

Cave bears are poorly represented in European Paleolithic rock art. Only around 60 representations have been identified.

On its own, the Chauvet Cave contains 15, showing the importance of this animal to the Paleolithic cultures that decorated the Ardèche cave.

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

The representations of bears are concentrated in the first half of the cave, the red sector. 13 bears have been counted there, most of them drawn in red. In the black sector, the bear is represented once with charcoal and twice by scraping on clay.

The Cactus Chamber has representations of bears, including one of the most majestic in the cave.

Bear of Cactus Gallery (Chauvet Cave) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The style used for drawing is similar throughout the cave. They are represented head down, with the back line disengaged from the shoulder. The skull is well equipped with the "frontal stop".

These red bears seem to have been made in three lines just like what prehistorians Valérie Feruglio and Dominique Baffier write: "The first [line] designates the front and the stop, and ends in a comma to indicate the nostril. The second designates the mouth and the third the chin and jowls."

Black Bear (Chauvet Cave)Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The representation of the cave bear demonstrates a peculiarity compared to the 13 other animal species in the Chauvet Cave. The eye is never represented. In addition, they are never present in the monumental frescoes.

Black bears were drawn with charcoal and, like the red bears, their contours are partially faded.

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

Arrangement and staging of bear bones

Apart from the parietal art, the Chauvet Cave has other cultural testimonies, which were sometimes just as spectacular. It has been proven that cave bear bones were manipulated, sometimes staged by people in the cave, offering a fresh look at the occupation of the Chauvet Cave by Upper Paleolithic people.

Bear Humerus and Bear Skull (Chauvet Cave) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Two humerus bones were found upright in the soil. One of them, located against a wall, seems to have been intentionally stuck in the ground.

The vertical position of the humerus associated with a bear skull is more uncertain. Located at a distance of about 10 m from each other, they are close to the natural porch where animals and humans entered the cave.

Accumulation of Cave Bear Bones (Chauvet Cave) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

There were about 130 bones in the cave. These bones, concentrated in small areas, were naturally carried by water or moved by animals.

Human action could also explain some piles that appear to have been staged, such as these two bear skulls arranged close to each other.

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

The Skull Chamber

In the Skull Chamber, a boulder that fell naturally from the vaulted ceiling is topped by a female bear skull deliberately placed there by a human (or humans) more than 21,000 years ago when the cave was still accessible.

On the surface of the boulder and under the skull are numerous charcoal fragments.

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

On the periphery of this skull, 53 bear skulls covered with a calcite formation created when the chamber was underwater have been documented. No other post-skeletal bone is visible on the surface.

What is the origin of these bear skulls arranged without apparent organization? Do they have a natural origin (dead bears in situ, bones displaced by animals or transported by water runoff), or were they brought and deposited by men? The origin of these bear skulls remains a point of debate.

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

A cave bear cult?

With the Chauvet Cave, it is tempting to hypothesize a strong symbolic link between man and cave bear. Despite the artifacts in the Chauvet Cave, there are no hard facts that could show that the bear was a major part of human spirituality 36,000 years ago.

In broader terms, the examination of archeological material from European sites does not support the hypothesis that there is a particular symbolic place for the bear within human cultures of the Upper Paleolithic. The bear cult, entertained since the 1920s, has not been confirmed by tangible archeological facts of today.

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.

http://lacavernedupontdarc.org/
https://www.facebook.com/lagrottechauvet2/

SMERGC also thanks Google Arts & Culture.

Bibliography

(1)
URL : https://www.researchgate.net/publication/283364757_Ursides_pleistocenes_des_Pyrenees_Elements_de_paleontologie_et_de_paleobiologie

(2) https://www.persee.fr/doc/bspf_0249-7638_2005_num_102_1_13340
(3) http://www.sekj.org/PDF/anzf36/anzf36-093p.pdf
(4) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jqs.2883
(5) https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5fda/ceb8dc9d8a74823e3e42b89a7634e74a9d17.pdf

(6) http://www.pnas.org/content/113/17/4670
(7) http://www.pnas.org/content/109/21/8002

(8) https://www.persee.fr/doc/bspf_0249-7638_2005_num_102_1_13340

(9) http://www.seuil.com/ouvrage/la-grotte-chauvet-jean-clottes/9782021022087

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