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Paleolithic Cave Art in France
Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France Paleolithic Cave Art in France
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Paleolithic Cave Art in France

by Dr Jean Clottes
Paleolithic Cave Paintings and Rock Art in France : Extracted from the Adorant magazine 2002

The Niaux Cave | Film Download

Less well known than other European caves such as Chauvet and Lascaux, Niaux houses some of the world's most spectacular rock art.
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Until the end of the eighties, it was impossible to date paintings directly, as the quantity of pigment necessary for such an analysis was too important. Accelerator mass spectrometry now enables us to obtain a date with less than one milligram of charcoal. Consequently, a number of direct dates are now available for six French caves : Cosquer, Chauvet, Cougnac, Pech-Merle, Niaux, Le Portel. When the caves have only got engravings (Les Combarelles, Cussac) or red paintings, or black paintings made with manganese dioxide (Lascaux, Rouffignac), it remains impossible to get a direct date because of the lack of organic material. Chronological attributions are then made with time-honoured methods, generally by taking advantage of the archaeological context whenever possible or from stylistic comparison with other better dated sites. For example, when the Cussac cave was discovered in the Dordogne in October 2000, Norbert Aujoulat and Christian Archambeau attributed its engravings to the Gravettian because of the similarities with Pech-Merle and Gargas (Aujoulat et al. 2001). When, in August 2001, a 25,120 BP ±120 date was obtained from a human bone in the same cave, it corroborated the initial estimate of those specialists (op. cit.).

Among well-established facts, the most important is the duration of cave art, over at least twenty millenia. The oldest dates are so far those of the Chauvet Cave (between 30,000 and 32,000 BP) and the most recent one that in Le Portel (11.600 ± 150 BP).

Such an immense duration implies several consequences. First, the acknowledgement that in order for such a tradition to persist under such a formalised form for such a long time, it must have meant that a strong compelling form of teaching existed. The fundamental unity of Paleolithic art, obvious as it is in its images and in the activities around it, could not but for that have persisted for so many millenia. It is also a fact that the apparent great number of painted or engraved caves and shelters is not much when compared to the duration of Paleolithic art. This means that there must have been an art in the open which has not been preserved in France, and also that the images, in hundreds of shelters and caves may have been destroyed or buried and concealed for a number of reasons.

Until a rather recent date, the evolution of art was believed to have been gradual, from coarse beginnings in the Aurignacian to the apogee of Lascaux. The recent discoveries of Cosquer, Chauvet and Cussac have shown that that paradigm was wrong, since from as early as the Aurignacian and the Gravettian very sophisticated techniques had already been invented. This means that forms of art evidencing different degrees of mastery must have coexisted in different places and times and also that many artistic discoveries were made and lost and made again thousands of years later. The evolution of Paleolithic art was not in a straight line, but rather as a seesaw.

Human and animal activities in the deep caves

Paleolithic wall art cannot be dissociated from its archaeological context. This means the traces and remains of human and animal activities in the deep caves, because valuable clues about the actions of their visitors are better preserved in them than in any other milieu.

Bears, particularly cave bears, hibernated in the deepest galleries. Some died and their bones were noticed by Paleolithic people when they went underground. At times they made use of them : they strung them along the way and lifted their impressive canines in Le Tuc d’Audoubert; in Chauvet, they deposited a skull on a big rock in the middle of a chamber and stuck two humerus forcibly into the ground not far from the entrance. Cave bears scratched the walls as bears do trees and their very noticeable scratchings may have spurred people to make finger tracings (Chauvet) or engravings (Le Portel).

rock art cave paintings rock art cave paintings

Jean Clottes examines the Skull

Bear Skull Altar of Chauvet

(left) In one of the biggest chambers of the Chauvet Cave,
a cave bear skull was deposited on top of a rock. Photo J. Clottes
(right) Jean Clottes examines the Bear Skull Altar.

Humans left various sorts of traces, whether deliberately or involuntarily. When the ground was soft (sand, wet clay), their naked footprints remained printed in it.(Niaux, Le Reseau Clastres, Le Tuc d’Audoubert, Montespan, Lalbastide, Fontanet, Pech-Merle, L’Aldlene, Chauvet). This enables us to see that children, at times very young ones, accompanied adults when they went underground, and also that the visitors of those deep caves were not very numerous because footprints and more generally human traces and remains, are few.

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