Humans in the Chauvet Cave

How humans impacted the cave by leaving footprints, abandoned artifacts, and making improvements

Grotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Geological details of Hillaire Rooms (Chauvet Caves) (2008/2008) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The chronology of animal and human present in the Chauvet Cave was mapped out after compiling 250 dates using chemical elements 14C (carbon 14) and 36Cl (chlorine 36). It showed two distinct human occupations clearly identified and attested by dating the wall drawings and samples of charcoal collected from fire pits: they range from 37,000 to 33,500 years ago BCE for the first and 31,000 to 28,000 years ago BCE for the second. Up until 33,000 years ago, there is also proof of bears in the cave. Finally, episodes when the cave was closed correspond to four rock collapses between 34,500 and 21,500 years ago BCE.

Salle des bauges (Chauvet cave, Ardèche) (2006/2006) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The archeology of remains

Human and animal incursions, along with natural events (like water flows), have disturbed the soil and walls of the cave over time. However, the archeological remains found are cultural testimonies for understanding how humans used and appropriated this subterranean space.

Fireplace (2009/2009) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Managing fire pits

To illuminate space and produce high-quality charcoal needed for drawings, Palaeolithic people often entered the Chauvet cave to built fire pits.

A noteworthy fact is that the plant material used for fire pits most of the time was Scotch pine. Some fire pits were demarcated using limestone slabs.

Fireplace (2010/2010) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Unconstructed fire pits

Other pits were dug directly in the ground and left unmanaged.

Rubeifaction (2013/2013) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Wall heating and fragmentation

At the entrance of the Megaloceros Gallery, the walls located opposite and above certain fire pits have undergone transformation, including reddening of the rock and fragmentation. This flaking is found on the ground as sharp clasts (rock fragments).

Torch smears (2011/2011) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Torch marks

People used torches to illuminate the cave. When the fire weakened, the torchbearer scraped the end against the wall to create burning.

Dozens of marks, called torch marks, are visible in the Chauvet Cave. Their advantage is that they show the transit routes of human beings.

Flint tools (2001/2001) by J.-M. Geneste et M. LhommeGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Stone tools

Around 20 flints were found on the ground surface of the Chauvet Cave. There are probably others on the premises but excavations were not allowed at this time. Some searches have had very promising results.

Ivory Spear (2001/2001) by Ph. MorelGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

An ivory spear tip

An ivory tip that was part of a hunting projectile (an assegai) was found abandoned in the Megaloceros Gallery. It is around 28 cm (11 in) long. This tip was used throughout Europe during the Upper Paleolithic period. The dates obtained from embers in the immediate vicinity of the tip indicate an age between 30,700 and 33,000 years ago (although it is likely older).

Human FootprintGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Human footprints

Approximately 20 human footprints form a 70 m (230 ft) long path in the Skull Chamber. These prints are attributed to a child who would have been about 130 cm (4.2 ft) tall. This child was holding a lit torch, the marks of which are found on the arches.

Human Footprint (2001/2001) by M. GarciaGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

These smoke stains have been dated to 26,000 years ago (likely older). The child's presence in the cave corresponds to the second period of inhabitation. There are also two right-hand prints smeared with clay on one wall. The prints could possibly reconstruct the child's path.

Hand-made pile of boulders, mostly collapsed (2010/2010) by JJ DelannoyGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Archeology of accommodation

Hand-made pile of boulders (2011/2011) by Jean ClottesGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Block mounds

Limestone blocks (the heaviest weighing up to 143 lb) were moved and accumulated in two places at the bottom of adorned walls. The function and age of these piles are not known.

Hand made moved limestone boulder (2006/2006) by Jean ClottesGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The staircase

There are less spectacular examples in other places. Among them are displaced blocks positioned at the foot of a clay embankment joining two chambers.

This block had to serve as a stair step.

Human made dam in the Chauvet cave (2006/2006) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

An artificial pond

The most important development is the construction of a pond for storing water. There are stalagmite floor slabs stuck in the ground and joined with soft clay. The area of this artificial pond is around 5 m² (18 ft²).

The water still flows today. A few yards away, under an overhanging stalagmite decking, one can observe dozens of fingerprints sculpted with clay. These extractions were used to join the slabs forming the artificial dam.

The river of bones in the Bauges Chamber (2005/2005) by J. ClottesGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Humans and the cave bear

Given the large quantity of bones (4,000 bones were found on the ground surface of the cave) and the occasional displacement of ursine bones, as well as the large number of bear remains (tracks, scratches, and digging), it is thought that bears had a prominent place in Paleolithic human culture. However, it is possible that these bones were displaced without any real intent.

Bear Skull (Chauvet Cave) (2011/2011) by L. Guichard/Perazio/smergcGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The bear skull on the block

In the Skull Chamber, a roughly cube-shaped block of rock hosts a female bear skull about 40 cm (15.5 in) long. There are small pieces of charcoal scattered on the surface of the block. This skull has been placed on this block denoting an obvious desire to stage this space as if it was used heavily by bears.

Cave Bear HumerusGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

Bears bones implanted in the ground

At the entrance of the cave, two bear humerus (upper arm) bones about 50 cm (19.5 in) long and 10 m (133 ft) apart, are implanted upright in the ground.

One of them is against a wall and comes out of the ground at a height of about 8 inches.

Cave bear humerus upright (2004/2004) by Jean ClottesGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The second contains a bear skull. It is difficult to say whether these implanted bones were a result of human activity. However, their location facing the entrance porch raises questions.

Salle Dominos - Dotted MammouthGrotte Chauvet - UNESCO World Heritage Site

The people who frequented the cave did not live there. They adorned it copiously, managed and modified it at times, building a sacred space embodying Paleolithic beliefs at the crossroads of the real and spiritual world.

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.

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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