in 1994, the discovery of the wonders contained within Chauvet cave at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc (France) formed a crucial part of our understanding of Palaeolithic art as a whole. At the time the discovery became a media sensation and then more recently returned to the limelight with the release of Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
The cave, extends horizontally for nearly 500 metres and is located at the entrance to the Ardèche gorges between the Cevennes and Rhone valleys. Over 425 groups of paintings have been documented and include numerous realistic renditions of animals (reindeer, horses, aurochs, rhinoceros, bison, lions, cave bears among others), human hand prints and abstract dots. The images in the front hall are primarily red, created with liberal applications of red ochre, while the back hall images are mainly black, drawn with charcoal.
The black drawings are grouped into two main phases; a paste of ground charcoal in water for the more recent and a dry charcoal stick for the earlier. However, the early age assigned to some of the black images have been called into question by researchers Jean Combiera and Guy Jouve, who have carried out a comparison with other cave art from the same period along with an examination of the original AMS radiocarbon dates.
Combiera and Jouve argue that the site must be examined in its natural, cultural and thematic framework within a wider region, believing that the images do not represent an isolated moment of artistic genius from the Aurignacian period. By examining and comparing the red and black painted figures, as well as the engraved images, to the later Gravettian and Solutrean period examples, they feel there is a marked stylistic similarity, including the way that both mammoth and horse are portrayed.)
They conclude that although Chauvet cave displays some unique characteristics, it appears to belong to a far more evolved phase of parietal art that sits within a Franco-Cantabrian tradition around 26,000–18,000 years ago. This tradition, the researchers argue, is far removed from the earlier motifs of its origins, known from art on stone blocks and shelter walls dated by stratigraphy to the Aurignacian (around 31,000 ± 1,000 BP) in France and Cantabrian region of Spain. The decoration from this period is often more stylistic and markedly geometric, and therefore the Chauvet animals would be too early for the Aurignacian period that they are presently dated to.
Growing evidence supports older date
However, there is another twist in the tale, and one which could weaken Combiera and Jouve’s assertions. The site of Altxerri B in Spain has been found to contain similar and even older dated artworks stretching back 40,000 years. Archaeological, geological and stylistic evidence, together with radiometric dates, suggest an Aurignacian chronology for this Spanish cave art. The ensemble in Altxerri B can therefore be added to the small but growing number of sites dated to this period, corroborating the hypothesis of more complex and varied figurative art than had been supposed in the early Upper Palaeolithic.
Another piece of evidence that supports the earlier dating of the Chauvet images relies on the depiction of animals that would have been extinct by 29,000 years ago, such as the cave bear and rhinoceros, begging the question of how later groups painted animals that had been missing for thousands of years?
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