Situated near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc in the Ardèche region of southern France, the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, commonly known as the Chauvet Cave, houses some of the best-preserved prehistoric figurative cave paintings in the world, which in all probabilities dated to between 33,000 and 30,000 years ago. However, the dates have been a matter of dispute and although a study published in 2012 supports the view of placing the art approximately 32,000 to 30,000 years ago, the study published in 2016 using additional 88 radiocarbon dates showed two periods of habitation, the first one from 37,000 to 33,500 years ago, with most of the black drawings, followed by the second, which is approximately from 31,000 to 28,000 years ago. The remaining signs of occupation are estimated approximately from around 27,000 years ago, which is within the succeeding Gravettian period.
Nevertheless, it is maintained by scientists that possibly from at least around 21,000 years ago onwards until its discovery in 1994, the Chauvet Cave remained detached from the outside world, as its entrance was completely sealed off due to a massive landslide.
Most of the artworks of the Chauvet Cave date to the Aurignacian period, which first arrived in Europe around 40,000 years ago. The later Gravettian occupation, which occurred 27,000 to 25,000 years ago, left little but a child's footprint and the charred remains of ancient hearths, which prove that those ancient people used to stay in it. Strangely, apart from domestic uses, the hearths were also used for producing charcoal, creating flickering shadows in the pitch black darkness within the cave.
The soft, clay-like floor of the cave retains the paw prints of the cave bears, while the large, rounded depressions are believed to be their sleeping place. Apart from the horned skull of an ibex, the cave also contains abundant fossilised bones, including the skulls of cave bears. The paw-prints dated 26,000 years ago are considered to be left by a dog, which could also be a wolf.
The Chauvet Cave was named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, who discovered it on Sunday, 18 December 1994, along with his two speleologist friends, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. On that day, while exploring an area on the left bank of the river Ardèche, close to the Vallo Pont-d'Arc, they were alerted by light air flow emanating from a hole, signifying the possible existence of underground caverns.
After tunnelling their way through the cliff wall, using hammers and awls to chip away the rocks and stalactites that blocked them, they descended into a world frozen in time and were ultimately blown away by the full magnitude of the hundreds of paintings and engravings.
However, although the discovery is marked in December 1994, it is maintained by many that months before the official discovery, during the spring of the same year, Michael Rosa, also known as Baba and a friend of Chauvet, was the first man to suggest that the airflow was coming from a cave hidden behind the rocks and despite he tried to go down into the hole, he was obstructed by a stalactite, which he could not move by hand. Later, the said aperture became known as Le Trou de Baba, or Baba’s Hole. Subsequently, Michel Chabaud, along with his two friends, went further into the cave and discovered the End Chamber, the Gallery of the Lions.
The Chauvet Cave contains hundreds of paintings and engravings, ranging from geometric forms of red dots on the walls to handprints, together with more than 420 animal representations. Rather than depicting only the familiar herbivorous animals like the horses, aurochs, mammoths and cattle, the walls of the cave feature several predatory animals like cave lions, bears, leopards and hyenas and even rhinoceroses. The first part of the cave contains three cave bears painted in red in a small recess and is also home to several groups of large red dots, located in a side chamber. It also contains some mysterious images in red, with geometric bits, which are hard to identify; but could be certain symbolic signs or representations of some animals or a bird with its wings spread. The Hillaire Chamber, located in the second section of the cave, is rife with engravings, decorating large hanging rocks, which include a remarkable long-eared owl with its head facing the front while its body is seen from the rear. The so-called Panel of the Horses in the second section, comprising 20 animals, is a unique scene, which is rare in Palaeolithic art. But the fascinating eye-catchers are two rhinoceroses that stand face to face, horns crossed, confronting each other, just in the way male rhinos fight in the wild.
Typical of most cave art, the Chauvet Cave is devoid of any painting of complete human figures, but the Salle du Fond, the last and the deepest of the cave chamber contains an unusual figure drawn in black charcoal, which has been termed as Venus and the Sorcerer. The public triangle of the Venus, shaded with black pigment, seems to be the heart of the composition, while the white vulva slit appears to have been done later with a sharp tool and is distinctly denoted by a vertical line. The Venus is attached to an incomplete pair of legs with plump thighs, finish at a point with the feet not shown. While there are two felines, a mammoth and a small musk ox, to the left of the Venus, to its right is the Sorcerer or man-bison and the relation of the Venus to the Sorcerer seems to be significant.
Inducted into the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites on 22 June 2014, the Chauvet Cave is sealed off to the public for the protection of the invaluable ancient paintings, but to soothe the interest of the people, a replica of the cave has been built close to the cave.