[Part I of II]

At around 32,000 years old the paintings in Chauvet cave are some of the earliest known. They are located in the Ardèche region of Southern France and were discovered in 1994 by a group of scientists led by the eponymous Jean-Marie Chauvet. For their protection, access to the cave is forbidden to anyone but a few experts, and consequently the closest it is possible to get to visiting is watching Werner Herzog’s 2009 documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The film conveys a sense of an ancient and preternatural rite of passage, opening with sweeping aerial shots of the idyllic, sun-drenched Ardèche valley and then descending, following the film crew through a small door in the cliff-face and into the dark underworld of the tunnels. After proceeding for some distance along a cramped passageway, the crew drop down a vertical shaft and into a broad cavern. The guide explains that in this part of the cave there was an opening in Prehistoric times through which the Palaeolithic people gained access, and then the way was blocked 15,000 years ago by a landslide, sealing the cave till the present.

The inside of the cave is impressively sculptural; every surface is ribbed and pocked, scoured full of hollows and swollen with alluvial secretions. The roof drips with stalactites; stalagmites jostle on the floor. Animal bones are strewn around, encased in layers of lustrous calcite. The crew goes on further, restricted to a narrow board-walk so as not to disturb the ancient impressions on the floor surface. As they reach the part of the cave that would have been in total darkness even before the landslide, the paintings begin to emerge. The first are abstract: a pattern of red spots, which on closer inspection are palm-prints, all made by one man, six-foot tall with a crooked finger. Then there are horses and mammoths in white, not painted but traced with the finger into the dusty film of minerals that coats the cave, their outlines intersected by the scratches of cave-bears that used to hibernate there.

In the next chamber the crew reach the ‘panel of the horses’, the first of Chauvet’s two great friezes. It occupies a recess in the cave wall surrounding a crack that emits water after rainfall. The animals are painted in black and the rock around them is scratched away to produce a contrasting pale background. They stampede from the water-crevice in a great herd, their outlines weaving together, distorted by the undulations of the rock face. Even deeper into the cave is the ‘panel of lions’, showing a similar tangled surge of animals, this time pursued by a hungry pride. Beside it is the only human figure depicted at Chauvet: the lower half of a woman – just her legs and pubic triangle – with the outline of her left thigh turning into that of a bison whose head and neck envelop her hips, and her right side merging with a lion. It is found on a pendant of rock jutting from the ceiling and it seems that it was the conical shape of this outcrop that suggested to the artist the form of a woman’s legs. The depiction is consistent with Palaeolithic ‘Venus’ statues, the earliest of which are roughly contemporary with Chauvet.

Although the images form a harmonious whole, they were in fact made by different people in a complex sequence spanning almost five-thousand years. The process began with the cave bear scratches then countless successive phases of people’s additions were overlaid and interknitted so that not only forms but millennia overlap on these walls. The timescale is not human but geological; artworks accrued at the speed of stalactites.

The physical environment of the cave played a crucial part in determining the art’s formation. It was never inhabited and can only have been selected as a site for painting because certain of its qualities particularly attracted people. One of these appears to have been the lack of light, indicated by the confinement of the work to the far depths where the darkness was total. The focus of decoration around the water-emitting fissure also reveals an interest in points of liminality of which the whole enterprise of cave painting could be seen as indicative. The contours of rocks appear to have inspired the forms painted on them, so that natural bulges are incorporated into the pictures corresponding with the animals’ musculature. This concern to engage with the surroundings of the cave is also suggested by the special selection for painting of walls bearing cave-bear scratches, and a bear skull set on a flat rock, probably by a human, has lead to speculations about the possibility of ritual activity in the cave. The bears’ presence is highly conspicuous even now – their footprints and the impressions of their sleeping bodies mark the floor, skeletons abound of those that succumbed to hunger or gas leaks during hibernation – and they certainly played a significant part in defining the environment of the cave for the Prehistoric people.

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Illustration by the author

The specific range of the subject matter in the paintings is striking. It consists primarily of animal forms, almost obsessively repeated, and a single, sexualised partial-woman. The range of animals depicted is also specific. Considering the popular conception that Palaeolithic people painted the animals that they hunted and ate, it is noticeable that the small game animals such as birds and hares, shown from remains in inhabited caves to have been a large part of peoples’ diets, are entirely absent. Likewise lions, panthers, hyenas, owls and bears – creatures unlikely to have been hunted by humans – are all present. They are depicted with detailed attention to a wide variety of animal behaviour, ranging for example from the vigilance and poise of a pack of lions engrossed in a hunt to the irritation of an uninterested lioness snarling at the overtures of a lion.

Although people often comment on the supposed naturalism of the artworks, most of the animals are disarticulated and formally indistinct. A bison has eight legs, a rhino seven horns, a row of horse-heads have no bodies. You cannot make sense of the individual forms; they merge and fracture enigmatically. This impression of ambiguity is heightened by the natural contours of the rock face that distort the images and stipple them in shadows; no doubt torchlight would contribute further to this effect. People talk about this as a kind of motion-blur meant to suggest the animals’ movement – like ‘proto-cinema’, says Herzog – or as representing a perceived spiritual blurring:  a belief in the ‘fluidity’ and ‘permeability’ of relations between creatures, as suggests Jean Clottes, ex-head of research at Chauvet. While neither suggestion is unthinkable, both assume that the images operate within systems of representation that are culturally and historically based and therefore of doubtful relevance to Palaeolithic culture, about which almost nothing is known. This is the same obstacle met by all interpretations of the images at Chauvet, that without cultural knowledge they cannot be understood.

[Click here for part II: Crocodiles]