A Journey Through the World's Oldest Art Gallery

Discover the 36,000-year history of the Chauvet Cave

By Google Arts & Culture

Come closer to the fire...

Think back to 36,000 years ago. The world is gripped by the last great ice age. Shelter and natural resources are difficult to come by. 

Your wardrobe consists of animal skins and your only tools are made from flint and bone. Known and unknown groups of people travel across frozen seas, doing what they can to survive. Some of them are friendly, some hostile.

Within the limestone crags of what would become southern France, you discover a cave system.

 It’s good for shelter, and you can start a fire on the dry ground. You’re safe (unless there are bears around!) and comfortable, with your family and friends in tow. 

Reconstruction of Paleolithic entrance of the Chauvet Cave by Anamnésia/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

You look up at the bare wall, and down at the charcoal from the fire, picking up a piece and making a mark on the limestone. Something stirs inside you…

Charcoal Drawing by SMERGC / AnamnésiaGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

It’s impossible to know for sure what drove our Aurignacian ancestors to become artists. Was it simply for decoration - art for art’s sake? Were the animals figures of worship? Or were the drawings a kind of magic intended to bring about a successful hunt?

What is certain is that the Chauvet caves and their amazing paintings allow us to imagine people not so different from ourselves, with complex thoughts and emotions, and the skills of great painters.

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

The animals are shaded, giving depth and dimension, like something from a Renaissance master’s sketchbook. 

They are painted with bowed heads and clenched postures, and even sometimes more than four legs. This gives the impression of rapid movement and a blur of limbs, an effect that would have been animated by flickering flames. Chauvet could even be called the first cinema.

As with most cave art, though, Chauvet doesn’t include any images of humans. So who were the people who occupied the cave? When and how did they live?

Central Piece of the Feline Fresco (Chauvet Cave, Ardèche) by L. Guichard/Perazio/SmergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

36,000 years ago, during an ice age, frozen seas meant that hardy communities could travel over vast distances in search of food and resources. 

They made tools from antlers and bones, and hunted mammoths, bears, and reindeer with spears.

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

Another group of people visited the Chauvet caves about 25,000 years ago, but left nothing except some ashes from fires and a child’s footprint, preserved for tens of thousands of years until the next humans came across the cave…

Evocation of reconstructed entrance to the Chauvet Cave by SMERGC / KALEO FILMSGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

A Re-Discovery...

Flash forward to a cold day in December, 1994, near the Pont d’Arc in southern France. 

Three speleologists (scientists who study caves) are investigating a strange emission of warm air from a crack in the limestone…

Panoramic view of the Pont d'Arc by David HuguetGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

...one of the team, Jean-Marie Chauvet, insists they excavate further. 

Eliette Brunel goes in first. To her amazement, she finds herself inside a cavernous chamber, about 30-feet high! She suggests they name it after Chauvet, as he had urged them on to the discovery.

Original "ventilation hole" leading inside Chauvet cave by CBH SARLGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Brunel...

Chauvet...

And Christian Hillaire went deeper into the network and uncovered not only a series of incredible geological features...

But also the world’s oldest art gallery.

p12_les 3 inventeurs de la grotte chauvet - copie 2Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

A hidden secret...

Gorges de l’Ardèche has been dubbed the "European Grand Canyon"...

But today the beautiful landscape is mostly known for what lies beneath...

Landscape of the Ardèche valley nearby the so-called Autridge meander by David HuguetGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Chauvet Cave. 

Though the fragile cave art is no longer accessible to the public, you can become a speleologist yourself and step inside, here.

Christian Hillaire facing the large Horses fesco by CBH SARLGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

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