One of the most intriguing glimpses into the perspectives of Europe’s Paleolithic people is documented by the artwork of the Chauvet Cave in southern France. These paintings originate from about 30,000 B.C.E. and continue over a span of more than 5,000 years. (To put that in perspective, 5,000 years before today the great pyramids of Egypt had not yet been built.) The cave was rediscovered in 1994 by a spelunker, and given the breadth and quality of the art this relatively recent discovery was fortuitous, since degradations in other cave paintings in France and Spain have taught important lessons about the fragility of Ice Age art. For this reason, admission to the cave is limited to select scientists and art historians, and even their access is severely circumscribed.
Advances in radiocarbon dating aside, the Paleolithic origin of the Chauvet paintings could be deduced from the subject matter alone: the further back in time you go, the more focused art becomes on animals. Aside from handprints and stencils, there is only one anthropomorphic image in the cave (more on that later). Some of the animals depicted include lions, panthers, bison, ibexes, rhinoceroses, a few insects, and the ubiquitous horses. Topographical features, such as outcroppings, curves in the walls and a scratch made by a cave bear, are incorporated into the drawings. There is a pleasing fluidity to the images and many convey a sense of motion. That Upper Paleolithic art is so sophisticated should not be surprising, considering how long humans have been creating art, going back a few hundred thousand years at least.
A variety of purposes have been postulated for Ice Age art, but the evidence for this cave points to a ceremonial function. It certainly was never inhabited by humans, which is consistent with most caves of this type. Though we call them “cave men,” people in this era usually lived in tents or stick huts. Animals also used the cave sporadically, perhaps wandering in search of salt or cornering prey, but some animal bones were carried in by humans. Cave bear skulls are particularly well represented. Since humans at this time depended heavily on meat in their diet, it was once assumed that cave art had a magical function in improving prowess and success in hunting expeditions; however, the presence of pregnant animals and human female images has provoked speculation that the purpose of these paintings was to improve the availability of game by increasing the fertility and size of the herds. In the Chauvet Cave there is one prominently placed anthropomorphic figure, the headless torso of a plump woman with an exaggerated pubic area, alongside a bison.
For the most part the Chauvet Cave differs from other parietal art in France, Spain, and Germany only in being older and better preserved. The higher proportion of predators on these walls, particularly felines, is one of the unique features. It is impossible to infer from this one example whether this is a characteristic of older Paleolithic art or simply an anomaly. It does, however, highlight the pitfalls of developing overarching theories to explain prehistoric ceremonial art. Animal magic has many functions.
The French government is building a replica of the cave that will be open to the public in April 2015. At present the most immediate experience of the cave is found in a 2010 documentary by Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Preservationists bound the filmmakers to a short timetable and a strict set of rules, and the film is marred by an incongruous soundtrack and some organizational lapses, but the documentary is fascinating nonetheless.
The film starts by exploring the geological features surrounding the cave and explaining the fauna that would have been prevalent during the Ice Age. The cave’s artwork, particularly the sole anthropomorphic figure, is placed in context with other archaeological findings in the region. Musical instruments from these archaeological sites provide a taste of the type of music that might have accompanied ceremonies in the cave. Covering an angle I myself would not have thought of, a perfumer is interviewed to describe the smells in the cave today and the odors that would have been present when the cave was in use.
The subjective experience of the cave on those who research it is not neglected. One archaeologist admits that after striving to be admitted to the cave he cut his research short due to the overpowering ineffable sensations and vivid dreams the paintings elicited. Herzog reveals during his narration that the film crew felt relief when they reemerged after each short day of shooting and that other scientists described similar feelings.
The official website for the cave includes some personal impressions designed for a general audience by anthropologists, biologists, and art historians who have participated in research projects at Chauvet Cave. Naturally I would have hoped for some first-hand impressions by a modern practitioner of animal magic, but these do not seem to be available. It would be interesting to learn if the overpowering sensations described by the filmmakers and scientists were a product of the energy vortex around the site itself, explaining the reason this cave was chosen for the paintings, or if energies from the ancient ceremonies linger after millennia, or if this is a reaction to the paintings themselves. A replica of the site, no matter how realistic, cannot answer these questions. Energies from original paintings are partially captured by photographs, however, so the documentary does reveal that on an energetic as well as an artistic level, these paintings are indeed powerful.
Bahn, Paul G. and Jean Vertut. Journey Through the Ice Age. London: Seven Dials, 1998.
Herzog, Werner, Director. Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 2010.
The Cave of Chauvet Pont d’Arc official website. http://www.culture.gouv.fr/fr/arcnat/chauvet/en/index.html