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Chauvet Cave does not stand alone

When the Chauvet Cave in southern France was discovered in 1994, it rocked the archaeological world, in part because its paintings of lions, horses, and rhinos were spectacularly sophisticated—and also because radiocarbon dating suggested that these artworks had been executed as early as 32,000 years ago, making them the oldest known cave paintings. (Because there is no agreed radiocarbon calibration curve for dates earlier than 26,000 years ago, all dates are given in uncalibrated “radiocarbon” years; actual calendar dates are probably several thousand years earlier. See Science, 15 September 2006, p. 1560.)

Yet while Chauvet’s paintings are unparalleled for their age in skill and technique, they did not stand entirely alone in the prehistoric art world. Indeed, many prehistorians were not completely surprised at their discovery, because there were already numerous indications that modern humans in Europe were making art that early; since Chauvet’s discovery, a number of subsequent finds have confirmed that conclusion.

Chauvet may shelter the earliest cave paintings (but see below), yet previous excavations in Europe had found sculptures at least as old. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing until quite recently, archaeologists working in the Swabian Jura region of Germany have uncovered more than 20 figurines skillfully carved from mammoth ivory, including a superb half-lion, half-man sculpture from Hohlenstein-Stadel (see photo at right). Once radiocarbon dating became available after the 1950s, researchers found that these figurines were between 30,000 and 36,000 years old. The most recent objects, including a carved bird and a horse, were found in Hohle Fels Cave and reported by Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in 2003. They too are at least 30,000 years old.

Indeed, the discovery of Chauvet was perhaps foreshadowed a few years earlier, when in 1991 the French government announced that superb paintings and engravings had been found in a submerged cave on the Mediterranean coast near Marseilles. The cave had actually been discovered in 1985 by a professional diver, Henri Cosquer, who accessed it via a 175-meter-long passageway whose entrance was submerged 37 meters below the water’s surface. Cosquer did not tell French authorities, however, and its discovery was not revealed until 1991 when three other divers got lost in the cave and died. When researchers were finally able to explore and date the artworks at Cosquer Cave—which depicted horses, wild cattle, and phalluses, among other things—some of them clocked in at 27,000 years old.

Chauvet’s early date is not uncontested, however. As I reported last year, in a Science update on research at the cave, some researchers have questioned the antiquity of the artworks there on technical grounds (possible contamination of radiocarbon samples) as well as aesthetic considerations (the apparent precociousness of the artistic style.)

Whether or not the skeptics are right, Chauvet may not be the last—or first—word in cave painting. An Italian team working at Fumane Cave, near Verona, has dated some fragmentary paintings found there, including one depicting some sort of half-human, half-beast figure, to between 32,000 and 36,500 years ago (Science, 20 October 2000, p. 419). Work at Fumane, which has been under excavation since 1988, continues today, and so far few researchers have questioned the dating. It may well be that the artists at Chauvet were not alone in practicing their craft; rather, they may just have been the Monets and Renoirs of their day.

For more information:
French government site on Cosquer Cave
About Fumane Cave