Chauvet Cave

by jptanabe

The Chauvet Cave in France contains hundreds of prehistoric paintings of a large variety of animals.

Chauvet Cave, located in Southern France, was first explored in 1994. The leader of the trio of speleologists who found these beautiful cave paintings was Jean-Marie Chauvet, after whom the cave is named. The cave had been sealed for thousands of years and so remained undisturbed and the artworks were preserved in unbelievably good condition.

The Chauvet Cave contains hundreds of animal paintings, including species not found in other prehistoric cave paintings. Many predatory animals including bears, lions, panthers, hyenas and rhinoceroses are depicted in the Chauvet cave, as well as animals that are usually found in cave paintings (horses, deer, bison). The Chauvet cave paintings have been dated back 30,000 years, which made them the oldest cave paintings discovered (until recently, when a red dot painted in the Cave of El Castillo in Spain was dated 5-10,000 years earlier). Amazingly, these paintings are as fascinating as any contemporary artworks. Viewing them connects us in a very special way to these ancient artists who lived so long ago.

Lions painted in the Chauvet Cave
Lions painted in the Chauvet Cave

Discovery of Chauvet Cave and its Paintings

The Chauvet Cave is located near Le Pont-d'Arc, a natural bridge of limestone in the Ardche valley of southern France. Discovered in 1994, it is considered one of the most significant prehistoric art sites as it contains the earliest known cave paintings and other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life.


Pont d'Arc and the Ardeche River
Pont d'Arc and the Ardeche River

The cave and its paintings was first discovered on December 18, 1994 by a trio of speleologists: Eliette Brunel Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and led by Jean-Marie Chauvet for whom it was named. Famous archaeologist Jean Clottes was contacted and immediately went to see for himself the cave paintings reported to be not only of the usual horses and aurocks but of lions and rhinos, animals not normally found in prehistoric cave art.

As well as the paintings and other human evidence they also discovered fossilized remains, prints, and markings from a variety of animals, some of which are now extinct. Sealed by rockfall for millennia, the contents of the cave were incredibly well preserved. To keep them this way, the cave has been kept closed with extremely limited access to only a few qualified researchers.

Great Book on Chauvet Cave and its paintings

Written by the man who discovered the cave - Jean-Marie Chauvet
Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave (The Oldest Known Paintings in the World)

An intriguing study of the early evolution of human artistic endeavors focuses on recent discoveries in the Chauvet cave, Stone Age paintings and engravings of animals that are ...

View on Amazon

Paintings in Chauvet Cave

When Jean Clottes hiked to the cliff overlooking the Ardeche Valley and crawled through the narrow passage into the Chauvet Cave he was skeptical that the report he had received of the spectacular painted cave was for real. Could another cave containing beautiful prehistoric art really have been preserved all this time, only to be discovered in his lifetime? He feared a fake.

Horses in Chauvet Cave
Horses in Chauvet Cave

o Clottes' amazement, inside the cave there were indeed numerous genuine Ice Age paintings of a diverse selection animals: bears, mammoths, owls, a hyena and a leopard or cheetah, fighting rhinos, a pride of lions, four horse heads and another horse that appears to be walking straight out of the cave wall into the space of the cave. Lions hunt bison; rhinos appear in beautiful detail; outstanding cave bears are painted on the walls of the very cave where their bones litter the ground, paw prints are preserved in the ground and hollows reveal where they slept; there's even a bear skull carefully placed on a stone that had fallen to make an altar in the center of one chamber.


Owl engraving, Chauvet Cave
Owl engraving, Chauvet Cave

There are also a number of human hand prints on the walls, as well as some abstract and geometric forms. The only human images are black charcoal.drawings of the "Venus" figure - legs and genitals of a woman - and the "Sorcerer" - a figure that is half man and half bison. Their location on the same wall suggests a deliberate connection by the artists.

Four Horses in Chauvet Cave
Four Horses in Chauvet Cave

This painting in the Chauvet cave shows a group of four horses. Rather than looking like a herd though, it seems to be a study of horses in different attitudes: from left to right, calm, aggressive, sleeping and grazing. The presence of the many other animals, including rhinos and aurocks in a variety of poses, certainly supports this interpretation. If this is true, what level of sophistication and insight into the nature of the creatures they drew with such care does it reveal about these artists from the past!

Detailed account of the art in Chauvet Cave

Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times

World famous archaeologist Jean Clottes and his team of researchers has been studying the art in the Chauvet Cave since its discovery.

This book documents their findings and their interpretations, and is beautifully illustrated with photographs of the paintings as well as maps of the various chambers.

Meaning of the Chauvet Cave Paintings

Interpretation of the motivation of the Chauvet Cave artists is not easy. Unlike other prehistoric cave paintings which generally show scenes related to the hunting lifestyle of the artists, many predatory animals are included here. Were these artists from an earlier era more concerned with observing all the animals in their environment, particularly the predators that might pose a threat? How could they have had more time on their hands to just paint for pleasure than their later descendants? Or were they, like it has been suggested later cave artists did, producing spiritual images, connecting to the spirits of the creatures they painted, and perhaps portraying shamanistic rituals in the painting of the "sorcerer"?

Here we have an artist's impression of how the shaman may have symbolically killed the lion painted in the cave representing killing a real lion in the future.

Artist's Impression of Cave Painting

A Sorcerer Attacks an Image of a Lion to Enable an Actual Kill Later  by Jack Unruh
A Sorcerer Attacks an Image of a Lion to Enable an Actual Kill Later by Jack Unruh

In any case, whatever their purpose, and even if we never know it, these beautiful paintings stand as truly spectacular works of art. They were preserved for all this time, preserving the legacy of people previously thought to have lived lives too primitive, to have been too busy just hunting and gathering and fighting for survival, and with too little appreciation of beauty or too little skill to produce works of beauty to be such sophisticated artists. One look at these paintings though changes our conception of the very humanness of these people from so long ago. It changes our very understanding of what it means to be human, at least it does for me.

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams"

Movie by Werner Herzog on Chauvet Cave

Werner Herzog was granted special permission to film the amazing paintings in the Chauvet Cave for his movie, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams." Due to concerns about damage to the paintings access was very limited and only 3 people were allowed to accompany Herzog. Since I will never get a chance to see the real thing, I'm thrilled to be able to see them in this film! Check out the trailer for the movie.

More about Chuavet Cave

Updated: 05/13/2016, jptanabe
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Have you visited Chauvet Cave?

jptanabe on 07/02/2016

Good point. I believe fire places have been found in some caves, which would have allowed for some level of illumination. Other caves have paintings on the roof, so perhaps they had torches.

frankbeswick on 07/02/2016

Quite correct, but regular use of fire in the caves would have led to soot deposits on the roof. Have these been found? Otherwise we must postulate occasional use of the caves, maybe on ritual occasions.

jptanabe on 07/02/2016

Yes, surely we can assume they used fire in the caves for light.

blackspanielgallery on 07/02/2016

If the intent was art as beauty we must assume there was some form of lighting, for in a dark cave without lighting it would have been difficult to have it properly appreciated. So, t implies there was at least some form of torch available.

jptanabe on 06/27/2016

Absolutely not! All art has several purposes, one being to manifest beauty. It can be instructional as well, without losing that element of beauty. And it can have a spiritual purpose too, as it has been suggested they drew the pictures of animals they wanted to kill. Of course some can be pictures of animals already killed, a kind of record of their prizes. For me, though, the truly beautiful nature of the images is what is most striking, and what makes them worthy of the title "art."

frankbeswick on 06/27/2016

Need we assume that there was only one purpose for any image?

jptanabe on 06/27/2016

Yes, some of the images may have been used to help youngsters identify prey, and predators!

blackspanielgallery on 06/26/2016

Perhaps a motive might have been instructional, as the images of aircraft and of ships used in WWII to identify an enemy. The younger members of the group might have been instructed with images of prey.
As for dating these kinds of paintings, the methods used might date the origin of the materials used, not necessarily when the images were made with them.

frankbeswick on 05/14/2016

As one fascinated by prehistory I really liked this article. What amazes me is the artists' apprehension of form and their ability to replicate it.

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