The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) placed the Chauvet Caves, known for their highly decorated drawings and paintings made on the cave walls by early human ancestors, on their official World Heritage List on June 22, 2014. The committee was gathering in Qatar when they inscribed the Chauvet Caves and six other locations around the world on the official registrar of World Heritage locations. There are now over 1,000 entries on the list.
The first known cave paintings have been dated over 30,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic period. They depicted human hands, animals and plants. In the Chauvet cave there has been more than 1,000 recorded paintings on the walls and ceilings covering over 90,000 square feet of surface. The paintings also record animal and anthropomorphic motifs, just like other famous caves such as Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France. There are over 4,000 types of prehistoric plants and many dangerous animals such as rhinos, bears, bison, wildcats, aurochs and wholly mammoths depicted on the walls. The first colors used by humans were red, black, white, yellow and brown. The red was made from hematite, a form of red ochre, the black from manganese dioxide, juniper and pine carbons, meaning burnt wood, and the white was from kaolin or mica.
The Chauvet cave was covered by debris, presumably caused by a rock fall over 23,000 years ago. This concealment of the cave kept it in near pristine condition and is why it is known as the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art. UNESCO has said the cave is situated in the Ardèche region of France and features the best-preserved and earliest expressions of human artistic creation of early modern humans in Europe. The main entrance was found over 80 feet underground, with the cave structure extending over 2,600 feet into various branches. Many of the more isolated areas remain unexplored by researchers.
On the official UNESCO World Heritage list the cave is titled the “decorated cave of Pont d’Arc, known as the Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, Ardèche.” The cave was originally discovered in 1994 by a trio of scientists specializing in the study of caves, Christian Hillaire, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and Jean-Marie Chauvet who wrote a detailed account of the study in 1996 and became the namesake of the find. The cave has been closed to the public for many years, though around 200 researchers visit the site every year to record images and study ancient human behaviors and rituals.
Many experts believe that the cave was never permanently inhabited by humans, but instead used for shamanistic practices of a scared nature. Some believe the paintings were depicted for beginner hunters to practice their spear throwing and to become accustomed to different anatomical aspects of the animals. Others think that animals were painted on the walls because the people believed that by painting them in the sacred belly of the earth, the cave was perhaps thought of as a womb, then the animals would be born in reality and thus create more food for the humans to hunt.
Some examples of cave paintings are found 20 to 30 feet off the ground meaning that primitive forms of scaffolding were required to scale the walls and paint the figures. Also very little light was inside of the caves so torches and other primitive lamps were necessary in order to paint inside the caves. This shows an immense commitment of early humans to paint these depictions, meaning that they were very important for them.
In order to share the amazing find to a broader public audience, a full-scale replica is being built nearby of the Chauvet cave. It is planned to become accessible to the public in April of next year. Artists have been working for a number of years to recreate the magical atmosphere inside the massive cave system in intricate detail. The caves have been described, as having an amazing assortment of techniques in the paintings from the anatomical accuracy, 3D replication of forms, clever use of color and unique combinations of engraving and panting to create an incomparable aesthetic quality. The Chauvet cave is also the oldest piece of cultural property placed on the UNESCO list as a World Heritage Site.
By B. Taylor Rash