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It is a fantastic panel indeed! I was the first specialist to see it on 29 December 1994, and I vividly remember my deep emotion particularly in front of the horses' heads!—Jean Clottes (written communication, July 1, 2011)
On December 18, 1994, three French friends, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire, all experienced spelunkers, discovered a decorated cave in the side of a limestone cliff between the Cévennes and Rhone valleys at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche, France, above the old river bed. Inside they found what is believed to be the world's oldest known representational art.1 The 3 discovers were engaged in a systematic in-depth exploration of the caves in this region of France and had drawn up an inventory of promising archeological sites not previously visited. The region is a nature reserve where the landscape, with its magnificent natural arch over the river bed, the plants and trees (lavender, heath, evergreen oaks, box trees, and Spanish junipers), and animals all are federally protected.
Arriving at the limestone cliff about 3 PM that afternoon, the spelunkers followed an ancient mule path that led to a narrow ledge and then advanced through dense vegetation until they noticed a cavity in the side of the white cliff wall about 6 feet up from the ground. The opening was 30 inches high and about 10 inches wide. They removed the rocks around the cavity and climbed inside, finding themselves in a sloping vestibule with a low ceiling. Moving forward, they perceived a current of air that encouraged them to continue. The duct descended and opened out. At 6:30 PM, Eliette, the smallest of the 3, with arms outstretched before her,“wriggled”1(p35) into the narrowness, using the light on her helmet to guide her. She called out that she saw the floor of a cave 30 feet below. After the others joined her, the spelunkers shouted to measure the resonance of the echo of their voices and were rewarded when their sounds were lost in the immensity that lay before them. They descended by ladder to the cave floor and walked single file in the darkness in one another's footprints to avoid disturbing this pristine cave. All were well aware of the damage that human intrusion could bring, knowing of damage done by tourist visitors to other such caves. The cave floor was covered by sparking white calcite and dozens of depressions in the floor they recognized as“nests’’ for hibernating cave bears, now extinct. Eliette called out to draw the others' attention to a drawing of a red mammoth elephant; prehistoric people had been there before them! Higher still was a large painted red bear, and beneath it on the cave floor were ancient bear bones and skulls. Moving deeper into the cave, they would encounter the masterful Panel of Horses (cover). The cave was subsequently named Chauvet Cave after the lead explorer, and chambers inside were named for Brunel and Hillaire.
The explorers returned with other colleagues in the ensuing days to photograph and videotape the interior of the cave, and then on December 28, they formally announced their findings. The day after this, Jean Clottes (epigraph), general inspector for archaeology at the French Ministry of Culture and scientific advisor for prehistoric rock art, visited with 2 associates to authenticate the cave art. Although initially quite skeptical, he made a careful inspection and ultimately authenticated the drawings as Paleolithic rock art. Because of the cave’s uniqueness, the Ministry decided it would not be opened to the general public; however, as curiosity mounted about it, film director Werner Herzog was granted special permission from the French minister of culture to film inside the cave. His 3D documentary film, Cave of the Forgotten Dreams, premiered in theaters in the United States in spring 2011. The documentary provides a long-awaited first-hand look at the evolutionary beginning of representational art in the Chauvet Cave.
Soon, authentication dating of cave drawings from The Panel of Horses and pieces of charcoal from the cave floor was performed using accelerator mass spectrometric C14 radiocarbon dating, a method that allows sample sizes as small as 1 to 2 mg and, in special circumstances, 50 to 100μg to be studied.2 The completed dating is consistent with the Aurignacian period, about 30 000 to 32 000 years BP (before the present), which would make the Chauvet cave art the oldest known. Similarly, dating of cave bear bones in the cave ranged from 37 000 and 29 000 years BP. Cave bears are believed to have become extinct in this region by around 29 000 years ago. Because low numbers of samples have been studied to date and all of these analyses were carried out in a single laboratory, some consider the dates as tentative, but all agree that the art is Paleolithic.
Dating of cave art is ongoing. As of 2007, 61 images from 19 caves out of more than 350 known decorated caves in this part of Europe have been reliably dated.3 New approaches to dating use uranium-thorium dating (based on uranium isotope decay into thorium) of carbonate deposits from speleothems (stalactites and stalagmites) that have grown over drawings or other cave artifacts. Universal protocols for sample collection, pretreatment, measurement, and full and objective publication of all results are needed as this work progresses.
Aurignacian culture is well documented through the consistency in the types of artifacts found throughout Europe. Aurignacian drawing is complemented by figurative art that dates back 30 000 and 40 000 years BP. Prominent examples include an 11-inch-high male figurine with the head of lion and numerous female figurines with prominent sexual features. The oldest of these is a female figurine carved from mammoth elephant ivory from the Aurignacian deposit at the Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany; it was dated in 2008 to be at least 35 000 years old.4 The Hohle Fels Cave findings also include 4 bone and ivory flutes dated to the same period, attesting to ancient musical expression.
The Chauvet cave extends 1700 feet on a single level and consists of 4 successive chambers with lateral galleries and vestibules. The height ranges from 50 to 100 feet. The first 2 chambers are decorated with red ochre, the third with engravings and black charcoal figures that extend to the end of the fourth chamber. More than 420 paintings have been documented in the cave. These include many animals (reindeer, horses, aurochs, rhinoceros, buffalo), human handprints, and abstract dot paintings. Yet there are no drawings of humans. There are thousands of animal bones, including the bones of at least 190 cave bears (Ursus spelaeus). There are remains of hearths apparently used to make the charcoal, an ivory spearhead, and a human footprint.
Observers are struck by the sophistication of the techniques used for the rock art. These include wall preparation in some areas, stumping (blending or rubbing in deposits of dry color from chalk or charcoal, using a roll of leather or paper known as a stump), internal modeling, spatial perspective, and outlining figures.5 The wall surface and its reliefs were taken into account. The hardness of the wall dictated the type of tool used (engraving, scraping, or finger tracing). Color was applied by projection (spray painting) or by direct contact with the wall (drawing with a finger, brush, or charcoal).
All paintings are highly realistic, and many show perspective and utilize the contours in the cave wall, sometimes to suggest movement. The Panel of Horses (cover), a rare naturalistic masterpiece, includes about 20 animals. The confrontation of 2 male rhinoceroses at the bottom of this panel reveals small arched ears, crossed horns, and leg positions suggesting movement. Using radiocarbon dating, 3 dates within the same statistical margins from the Aurignacian period have been established. The rhinoceros on the left is dated to 30 940 ± 610 years BP. The dates for the rhinoceros on the right are 32 410 ± 720 years BP and 30 790 ± 600 years BP.6
The heads of the 4 horses in this panel most powerfully engage the viewer (epigraph). The horses, drawn over the other animals, are all thought to be by the same artist, one who mixed charcoal with surface clay on the wall to produce the images. Such mixing allows various hues to be developed using the stump-drawing technique. Apparently the horse on the top was drawn first. The one showing the greatest detail (on the lower right) was drawn last. To some, its open mouth suggests the horse is whinnying. The finishing touch for these drawings was accentuating the form by outlining in white after scraping the outer edges.6(p38)
The emergence of Aurignacian cave art in Europe about 30 000 years ago suggests human beings had developed the capacity for symbolic expression. Indeed, these Cro-Magnon people, as they are known in the archeological community, are considered the first modern humans. Current scientific usage refers to them as European early modern humans. Language use, cognitive planning, and culture are assumed based on their artifacts. Yet realistic drawing with perspective may occur after damage to the prefrontal cortex that affects the capacity to name objects. People with frontotemporal dementia may develop or maintain artistic skills and make realistic copies with perspective.7 Examples include realistic landscapes, animals, or people and handcrafted small figures. Such patients demonstrate considerable interest in the fine detail of faces, shapes, and objects and are preoccupied with their art, persisting to perfect it. These images are mentally constructed as drawings without mediation through language. Such paradoxical effects resulting in facilitation and enhancement of behavioral functioning following direct or indirect neural damage is referred to as paradoxical functional facilitation8 and may be evidence of central nervous system plasticity.
Humphrey9 compared Chauvet cave art with drawings made by Nadia, an autistic savant, and found surprising similarities in the content and style of her horse drawings with the Chauvet Panel of Horses. Nadia's graphic skills allowed her to draw with perspective beginning at age 3½ years even though she was intellectually disabled and had virtually no language.10 She used foreshortening and hidden-line occlusion to give perspective and depth. As Nadia aged and her language developed, she lost the capacity to draw with perspective (and drew as a child of her mental age), thus providing a neurodevelopmental complement to people with frontotemporal dementia who gained new capacity for perspective when they lost language capacity. Might Aurignacian artists, even if they spoke to one another and engaged in social groups, have lacked concepts and names for the animals they drew? If so, did they use similar brain circuits that allowed an autistic savant and people with newly acquired frontotemporal dementia to draw with perspective? Could their artistic prowess be linked to limited capacity to categorize by naming? It was not until the Renaissance that artists in the West, after a long apprenticeship, routinely drew with such realistic perspective, as did the Aurignacian artists. Visual artists often report that they must place conceptualization in abeyance to draw with realistic perspective.
We do not know the meaning of the drawings in the Chauvet cave. When modern hunter-gatherers, or Australian Aborigines, view ancient European cave art, they recognize in it patterns consistent with their spiritual belief systems. In what way was Aurignacian art meaningful to those who drew it? Or did it become meaningful over time and acquire spiritual significance? A clue may lie in art from the Lascaux caves (15 000 and 17 000 BP) in the Dordogne Valley of France, which contain 600 paintings and almost 1500 engravings, including birds, bison, deer, aurochs, and horses and, uniquely, in the far back of the Chamber of Engravings, one human figure, the only one at Lascaux. This painting is a triptych of a stick figure of a man, a disemboweled bison, and a spear (Figure). The man lies on his back on the ground in front of the bison and a broken spear; a stick with a bird on top (Figure) is also nearby. Some propose that he is dead, but Michel Jouvet,11 a pioneer in research on paradoxical sleep, notes that the figure has an erection, as would be expected during rapid eye movement sleep. Jouvet proposes that the man at Lascaux is dreaming, perhaps of a hunt. The bird on a spear might represent a bizarre element in the dream or have symbolic meaning. With the emergence of consciousness, what role could dreams have played in production of imagery in ancient art?12
Harris JC. Chauvet Cave: The Panel of Horses. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(9):869–870. doi:10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2011.114
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