The Discovery of the Chauvet Cave

On December 18, 1994 in the Ardèche Gorges, one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the 20th Century took place

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

The explorers

On December 18, 1994, these explorers discovered the cave. By that time, their work as speleologists was already recognized. In the gorges of the Ardèche region, several caves have been discovered, some of which contain Paleolithic era paintings.

Eliette Brunel

She is a native of Saint-Remèze (Ardèche), right along the Ardèche Gorges. Passionate about speleology, she has discovered a hundred of archaelogical sites in Ardèche.

Christian Hillaire

He fell in love with speleology while still a teenager. In 1985, he took part in the discovery of the grotte des Deux-Ouvertures, an exceptional archaeological site in Ardèche classified as Historical Monument. He met Eliette Brunel that same year.

Jean-Marie Chauvet

Coming from the Cévennes Region, Jean-Marie is an explorer and an expert in speleological diving, a dangerous discipline. As a photographer and filmmaker, he took an active part in sharing speleological knowledge.

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

Finding a cave

To locate a hidden pocket or hollow, speleologists watch the limestone walls breathe. In winter, when the outdoor temperature is cool, condensation occurs. At locations where this takes place, warm air is emitted from inside the rock. This brief, natural event is most visible at dawn, when the sun's rays hit the sides of the Ardèche gorges at a tangent. Usually, it's a little pocket measuring just over 30 cubic feet. Once a century or so, it turns out to be a sanctum. That is what happened on December 18, 1994.

Landscape of the Ardèche valley nearby the so-called Autridge meander (2015/2015) by David HuguetGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

A draft of air through the wall….

For the Chauvet Cave, it was slightly different. The passage leading into the cave was already known, but was blocked. Having been explored several times, the speleologists didn't have much in the way of expectations when they passed through those few yards, until they discovered a current of air. The mosquito coil they lit at the entrance to this little tunnel confirmed it. The smoke hovered, heading downward and outward. 

Deroc Cave (2004-11-06) by JYB DevotGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

However, there were a few signs…

Eliette Brunel, Jean-Marie Chauvet and Christian Hillaire had found tracks of prehistoric man in the immediate vicinity of the Chauvet Cave. Three caves: Planchard, Charmasson and Vacheresse. In these hollows, the three companions had identified engraved figures, in particular a female human figure measuring eight inches high at Planchard (1993) and fingermarks at Charmasson (early 1994). These remote pockets located just a few dozen yards apart had therefore been visited by Paleolithic people. Doubts persisted about this natural corridor that apparently didn't lead to anything, despite the existence of an air current.

Photo montage showing the three discoverers (2015-01-17) by CBH SARLGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

December 18, 1994…

There were a lot of uncertainties. A number of speleologists seemed to have given up on the tunnel that didn't lead to anything and was full of huge, fallen rocks. Time for the mosquito coil test. The smoke was sucked downward. Jean-Marie Chauvet insisted that the three speleologists started work to unblock the tunnel, just as dusk was approaching.

p19_chatière extérieur-entrée origineGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Working the Roman way

There was a very narrow space for the speleologists to enter the cave. Equipped with a sledgehammer and a bradawl, Eliette Brunel slipped in, her arms stretched out forward, face down. She began the task of unblocking it. The other two stayed outside, pulling her back up by her legs. Eliette brought up armfuls of debris and then went back down. This way, they cleared a 30-foot length of stones. The three speleologists uncovered a natural ventilation hole that must surely lead somewhere, they thought. 

Original "ventilation hole" leading inside Chauvet cave (2013-09-03) by CBH SARLGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

A big void…

The speleologists were on the lookout for big, unknown, virgin networks. They are the modern-day equivalents of the great explorers. They have a need to know and to discover flowing through their veins. After a few hours of effort to clear the space, Eliette was able to stand up thanks to a natural opening in the ceiling. She managed to move forward, the way being lit by her headlamp. Outside, it was night. Jean-Marie and Christian waited and didn't know that Eliette had stopped. She looked out across what seemed to be an immense void. She could make out the floor, thanks to the faint light from her headlamp, was about 30 feet below her. She was barely able to discern any shapes. Her experience confirmed what her instinct had been hoping for: she and her friends had discovered a cave.

p19_entrée chatière -Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Pitch black surroundings…

After a lot of effort, Jean-Marie and Christian managed to join Eliette. Eliette had also helped out with a few more blows of the sledgehammer to allow her friends to slip into the tunnel. They were on the edge of a big black void. Their headlamps swept the cave and in doing so lit up a few calcite crystals for a moment. Something was there. " Thank you, Jean-Marie, for insisting on following that air current, " said Eliette. " You deserve to have it named after you, since you insisted on it, this could be the most beautiful one, the Chauvet Cave!"

La grotte Chauvet - CBH SARL (1999) (1999-01-01) by CBH SARLGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Having set out with no plans to discover a cave, the three speleologists returned to their vehicle which was parked in the valley, near Pont d’Arc, to get some exploration equipment. It was night-time and cold. It was a Sunday evening in winter, in Ardèche. All of them had work to get back to the next day. However, they all wanted to "do this opening." Lightly equipped, they headed back up to do the opening.

Speleothemes (2014-05-02) by CBH SARLGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

In the cave

Once they were back at the entrance to the ventilation hole, Eliette was the first to slip in, hands first. The three of them gripped the rock with their fingertips to move forward, pressing down on their tiptoes. They reached the promontory. The conversation turned to deciding who would be the first to set foot in this seemingly immense space. Jean-Marie was carrying the spelunking ladder. He descended first and waited for the other two to do the opening. Their headlamps struggled to find the walls, the space was so big.

Clip from The Chauvet Cave (CBH, 1999) (1999-01-01) by CBH SARLGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Multicolored speleothemes (2011-01-11) by CBH SARLGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

As they moved carefully forward, the three speleologists discovered majestic concretions, a kind of geological palace. Again, their instinct told them that this space was surely not isolated. Such a large volume must have a continuation, or a " speleological development ," as the experts say.

Two cave bear bones stuck vertically into the soil (2005-08-05) by CBH SARLGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Protecting the cave

So, the speleologists took off their shoes and moved forward in single file to avoid trampling all over the ground. The discoverers found a wonderful cave. Their heartbeats accelerated when they saw the first bones and dozens of cave bear nests. This meant bears had spent time in the place. Clearly, there is a natural entrance, no longer visible, that is bigger than the one discovered by the speleologists.

p23_galerie cactus-traits découverteils sont venus_Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

"They came here"

The three speleologists had already found cultural relics in caves in the Ardèche gorges. Their discoveries include Paleolithic drawings and more recent pottery. When Eliette split away from the small group, her gaze naturally fell upon two little parallel red marks. Spontaneously, she cried out: "They came here! "  Her two friends joined her.

Clip from The Chauvet Cave (CBH, 1999) (1999-01-01) by CBH SARLGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

p23_galerie cactus-traits découverteils sont venus_Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

They all knew what the pronoun " they " alluded to. Our ancestors had been there. Until then, the three speleologists hadn't noticed, but they had passed right by Paleolithic figures decorating the walls. The way they looked at the cave had now changed. They were in another space, until then unknown, and they were now experiencing another time—the time of our Paleolithic ancestors. And so the Chauvet Cave was born.  

Credits: Story

The SMERGC and its partners wish to thank Eliette Brunel, Christian Hillaire and Jan-Marie Chauvet for their collaboration.

The text of this exhibition is adapted from the book written by the discoverers:
La grotte Chauvet-Pont d'Arc et autres découvertes : Ses inventeurs racontent...
240 pages, Editions Equinoxe (20 novembre 2015)

The videos are taken from the documentary "La grotte Chauvet", produit par CBH SARL (1999). All rights reserved.

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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