Monday, August 18, 2008

La Grotte Chauvet: 10 years of research, but how old is it really?

In this week's issue of Science, I write about the last decade of research at Chauvet Cave in southern France, where spectacular drawings of horses, lions, rhinos, bison, bears and other creatures have been radiocarbon dated to as old as 32,000 years ago (the actual calendar ages are probably even several years earlier, but there is no agreed upon radiocarbon calibration curve for dates older than 26,000 years--although scientists are working on it.)

The link to the Chauvet story is accessible only by those with an individual or institutional subscription to Science, but you can hear me talk about the story and the findings in this week's Science Podcast, which you can access for free at this link. (Update: The story is now available on my Web site, please click here for full text and pdf choices.)

Here are a few grafs from the article:

Sometime during the last ice age, artists entered a cave in southern France, lit torches and fires, and began work on a masterpiece. Squatting on the cave floor and wielding pieces of charcoal, the artists first drew the outlines of two rhinoceroses locking horns. Then, standing up and moving to the left, they sketched the heads and upper bodies of three wild cattle. Finally, a lone artist stepped forward to execute the pièce de résistance: four horses' heads, drawn with exquisite shading and perspective in the center of the tableau, each horse displaying its own expression and personality. This, at least, is how researchers studying the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche region of southern France envision the creation of the famous Horse Panel.

But some archaeologists are challenging the early dates for the art:

But as the team continues its work, a small but persistent group of archaeologists continues to question the age of the paintings. "Chauvet is the world's most problematically dated cave art site," says archaeologist Paul Pettitt of the University of Sheffield, U.K., whose most recent challenge was published online this month in the Journal of Human Evolution (JHE). That contention--which the team vigorously rejects--has critical implications for our understanding of the origins of art. "The fundamental importance of Chauvet is to show that the capacity of Homo sapiens to engage in artistic expression did not go through a linear evolution over many thousands of years," says cave art expert Gilles Tosello of the University of Toulouse (UT), France. "It was there from the beginning."

The artists of Chauvet painted a lot of animals that were dangerous to them, probably from a distance. But they shared the cave with the now extinct cave bear:

The team has found about 4000 cave bear bones, representing nearly 200 animals, on the cave floor, including a skull that was apparently placed deliberately atop a limestone block. Archaeologists have long debated whether humans hunted cave bears, worshipped them, or had some other relationship with these now-extinct animals. The artists clearly saw them from time to time: Chauvet's menagerie includes 15 drawings of cave bears.

I go into a lot of detail about the dating controversy. But one researcher, at least, argues for a different way of looking at the cave:

In any case, the significance of Chauvet goes beyond the "oldest art" debate, says anthropologist Margaret Conkey of the University of California, Berkeley. "Chauvet was an expression of the sensibilities, beliefs, and social relations of anatomically modern humans in this part of the world," she says. "What was it about their lives that made imagemaking in caves meaningful?"

Photo: Part of the famous Horse Panel/Courtesy of Iain Davidson.

More on Chauvet: Some years ago, the writer John Berger, who lives in France, described his experiences during a visit to the cave (which is off limits to the general public) in The Guardian. His personal account, along with several others, is collected in a volume in French available here.


Anne Gilbert said...

There have been criticisms of the dating of Chauvet off and on ever since it was discovered. Paul Bahn is one who comes to mind. He thinks it's Magdalenian. In terms of "cave art" style, I can see why. In any case, I'm no expert. But I was wondering if you had any way of letting me see your article in Science. I may run the Palanthsci list, but I don't have access(sigh). If you can't, don't worry. I'll cope.And I'm going to mention this blog to various interested parties.
Anne G

Michael Balter said...

Hi Anne,

I have sent you the pdf directly, since unfortunately there is no way to attach it to this blog. But I am having a link to it put on my Web site within the next several days, for others interested please go to and then the Articles page (best to wait about a week to be sure, however.)

Anne Gilbert said...


Thank you very much. I will be able to see this pdf as soon as I get a new laptop that actually works! The one I got new, stopped connecting to the Internet after 3 days of use, and I had to get a replacement, which is *supposed* to arrive today, but has not(thank UPS for that). So I'm going to have a pile of e-mail to wade through before I do anything else, but I'll remember to keep an eye out for yours. And thank you very much for the pdf. It will be much appreciated(I had to get a new printer too; my old one is perfectly good, but Vista doesn't "recognize" it.
Anne G

Michael Balter said...

No problem Anne, and good luck with your computer problems. As for your printer, you may have to reinstall an updated printer program with Vista compatible drivers. Often you can download that new software from the printer manufacturer's Web site.