The Chauvet Grotto is a prehistoric cavern in the Ardèche Valley containing hundreds of figurative wall paintings about 36,000 years old. The sophisticated cave paintings are the best preserved and the oldest in the world, surpassing those of the 18'000-year-old Lascaux paintings.
The Chauvet cave was discovered in December 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire. The cave has been sealed off from the public since the beginning, to prevent the type of degradation that occurred at the Lascaux grotto. The minutely detailed, nearly full-sized replica cave Pont d Arc Cavern, a few km north of the original grotto, opened to the public in April 2015.
Chauvet Age and Artwork
The cave paintings in the Chauvet Grotto have been dated to 36,000 years ago! That's twice the age attributed to the Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne (400 km to the west). The 600-plus paintings in the Lascaux Cave were of such artistic quality that the site has been called Sistine Chapel of Prehistory, and were often considered to be an artistic anomaly for such early Man. It turns out that the 400-plus paintings on the walls of the Chauvet Grotto, although being twice as old, are even more sophisticated.
Earlier datings of the Chauvet cave paintings determined an age of 32,000—30,000 BC, in the Aurignacian era. Studies in 2016, using 259 radiocarbon dates, concluded that first period of occupation was 37,000—33,500 years ago, when most of the black drawings were made. A second period of occupation occured six thousand years later, between 31,000 and 28,000 years ago, when people of a different culture created the more colorful drawings.
Chauvet Grotto Discovery
Three amateur cavers (speleologists), Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire discovered the grotto. On 18 December, 1994, the trio were searching the rocks in the heavily wooded cliffs along the north side of the Ardeche river, looking for a blow-hole, air movement possibly indicating the presence of a cave beneath. They followed a narrow mule trail up through the thick brush to an area that had been investigated the previous Spring by other cavers, including Michael Rosa (see below).
Inside a short cave a few meters deep, finding a small possibility, they lit an anti-mosquito wick in front of a hole and confirmed that air was exiting the rocks. Eliette was the smallest so she crawled into the gap in the rocks; her head-lamp picked out ... nothing, and her shouts brought back echoes. They went back to their parked van and returned to the opening with a caving ladder. About 8 PM they descended into a gallery, then explored the first cavern, with the marvelous paintings. By 11 PM, they exited and blocked the access.
The following weekend, 24 December, the "discovery" trio returned to the cave with three caving friends, Daniel André, Michel Chabaud and Jean-Louis Payan. The group explored further into the cavern, taking 300 photographs, a video and making topographic diagrams.
The French specialist in Palaeolithic art, Jean Clottes, was invited to come and examine this amazing discovery. Thinking that this "discovery" was possibly a hoax, a wrongly dated recent cave, or an exaggeration, he nevertheless made the 400 km trip to Vallon-Pont-d'Arc and on 28 December in entered into the cavern. And was blown away by what he saw. Not only authentic, but vastly more extensive than anything he'd ever seen.
To prevent the type of damage done to Lascaux by years of uncontrolled tourism, a protective gate was installed on 12 January, and on 18 January 1995 the discovery of the Chauvet Grotto was revealed to the public.
On the Shoulders of Giants
According to what we've learned, there's more to the discovery than just the three principals. Much of the information is vague, and sometimes contradictory, so we can't be sure of these "facts"; and we may have misinterpreted some of the various articles [in French] that we referenced.
Amateur cavers Michel Rosa (called Baba) and his wife Sylvane Lucot say they were the ones who opened the entry to the grotto, possibly accompanied by Daniel André, and that they should be considered co-discoverers. In fact, many of the local cavers initially called the discovery Le trou de Baba (Baba's cave). Apparently the trio of Jean-Marie, Eliette and Christian widened the opening and descended inside (or further inside) in the following days. Jean-Marie himself says that Michel Rosa and Didier Lanthelme had discovered the possibilities in that area during explorations in the Spring of 1994.
Although the Chauvet trio made the actual discovery, they were, to paraphrase the admissions of Bernard of Chartres and Isaac Newton, standing on the shoulders of giants.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Grotte Chauvet-Pont d'Arc, Ardèche was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 2014. The geographical site recognized by UNESCO is the entire 8500 square-meter underground grotto, and the entire garrigue surface area over the top of the grotto.
Interestingly enough, UNESCO requires that a World Heritage Site be available to the public, yet the Chauvet Grotto is completely sealed off from the public, and has been since its discovery in 1994. To that end, it was the building of the facsimile Pont d Arc Cavern that allowed the Grotto to be listed by UNESCO.
Our sources for information about the Chauvet Grotto come from several other websites, some contradictory, and some of them sourced from each other. Since the grotto was closed to the public from the very beginning, and only very select and very honored people have had access, all information about Chauvet is by definition limited and controlled.
Normally all ProvenceBeyond photographs are taken personally by us. The Chauvet Grotto is a rare exception; with no access to the original grotto, and photography forbidden in the facsimile Cavern, we have had to use photos available online. We've tried to use public-domain photos from Wiki Commons wherever possible. Others, which we hope are at least tolerated for public use, we've marked as to the source.
Websites we've found particularly useful for information include:
• Grotte Chauvet-Pont d'Arc" - the discoverers' website
• donsmaps.com/chauvetcave.html - great amounts of detailed and technical info on the site, geography, interior, etc.
• fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grotte_Chauvet - Wikipedia, of course (French)
• en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chauvet_Cave - Wikipedia, of course (English)
• www.vanityfair.fr/actualites/france/articles/la-grotte-chauvet-inscrite-au-patrimoine-mondial-de-lunesco/14577 - Vanityfair (France) article, Jan 2014, about the discovery and some problems