How Early Humans Created the Paintings Found in France's Chauvet Cave

Humans and animals alike have long used caves for shelter, but in some cases, like Chauvet, cave interiors were also used as enduring canvases. (Photo: andreiuc88/Shutterstock)

Early humans living in Europe might have led challenging lives, but they still made time to create art. This included musical instruments, decorative clothing, complex sculptures, and paintings — like those found by spelunker Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994. The art found in the cave since named after Chauvet in the Ardèche region of southern France was so advanced, that historians initially had trouble believing the works were as old as they are.

But radiocarbon dating proves that the images in the Chauvet caves can be definitively traced back to two periods — the first 37,000 to 33,500 years ago and the second from 31,000 to 28,000 years ago. These cave paintings show an incredible depth of technique and sophistication. Not only are the images of the (now-extinct) ancestors of today's cattle and bison shown in realistic detail, but many other animals are pictured as well: Wooly rhinoceroses, aurochs, wild horses, lions and even an owl (head turned around to look over its back) are all perfectly recognizable.

But they aren't just realistic images of animals: The irregularities of the cave walls, including bumps, recesses, and fissures were used by the ancient artists to give a sense of movement and a 3D feeling to the more than 420 animals pictured.

Early art: Techniques and tools

Lions painted in the Chauvet Cave. This is a replica of the painting from the Brno museum Anthropos. The absence of the mane sometimes leads to these paintings being described as portraits of lionesses.
This is a replica of lions painted in the Chauvet Cave from the Anthropos Pavilion, a museum in the Czech Republic. The absence of the mane sometimes leads to these paintings being described as portraits of lionesses. (Photo: HTO/Wikimedia Commons)

While the earliest drawings were created using black lines from pigment made from charcoal or manganese dioxide, later ones included color: hematite was used for red tones and clays for browns. A variety of techniques are on display, including shadowing, perspective, repeating motifs and what we would today call pointillism and stenciling.

Color and shapes were added to the cave walls using brushes, fingers, animal hides (called stump-painting) and whole hands (to make palm prints). There was even a type of spray paint created by spitting or blowing pigment out through the mouth to create a fan of color over a larger area. (Some of these markings are thought to be the oldest-known depictions of a volcanic event.) To make the images stand out, the rock walls were scraped and cleaned off first, which will remind any modern painter of gessoing a canvas.

Since these drawings were made inside caves, light was needed to draw by, necessitating torches and grease lamps, a lump of animal fat with a plant-based wick stuck into it, sitting in a bowl-like stone. Paintings were made at such heights that anthropologists' best guess is that the people who made these paintings even created scaffolding to access additional spaces. Quite a lot of time and effort went into the painting project that was beautifully preserved for over 30,000 years until they were rediscovered.

Depictions of animals, but not humans

Replica of the painting from the Chauvet cave, in the Anthropos museum, Brno.
This replica of the painting from the Chauvet cave shows, from left to right, horses that are calm, aggressive, asleep and grazing. (Photo: HTO/Wikimedia Commons)

Why aren't people depicted on the cave's walls? It seems strange from the point of view of our own selfie-culture, or even considering art from many cultures from the last 2,000 years, which are overwhelmingly anthropocentric and depict people every which way conceivable. While human figure sculptures were created by the people who created the Chauvet cave paintings they are not depicted on the walls.

“In those days you might have one family of 20 people living there, the next family 12 miles away. It was a world of very few people living in a world of animals,” Jean Clottes, an archaeologist with the French Ministry of Culture, told Smithsonian magazine. Clottes thinks the cave paintings were religious or spiritual, perhaps utilized and created by shamans, invoking animal spirits for help with hunting, and also in times of birth, death and illness. “These animals were full of power, and the paintings are images of power,” Clottes said.

That's one theory. Another is that the animals depict various tribal affiliations or clans, while another idea suggests the paintings were a creative way to track the natural cycles of the animals that provided primary sustenance to early people. According to the New Yorker:

Analyzing the order of superimposed images, [the archaeologists] determined that wherever horses, aurochs, and stags appear on the same panel, the horse is beneath, the aurochs in the middle, and the stag on top, and that the variations in their coats correspond to their respective mating seasons. The triad of 'horse-aurochs-stag' links the fertility cycles of important, and perhaps sacred or symbolic, animals to the cosmic cycles, suggesting a great metaphor about creation.

We may never know definitive answers to what the cave paintings at Chauvet — or Lascaux, or others in the region — meant to the people who created them. And indeed, the caves and the art in them could have served more than one purpose, like churches do — as places of initiation and ritual, as a place to record stories, or as quiet, unchanging spaces for rest and contemplation. "In my own experience — I’ve inventoried five hundred caves — the more you look, the less you understand,” geologist Norbert Aujoulat told the New Yorker.

See for yourself ... sort of

Only scientists are able to visit these caves today — and they're allowed in only for specific time periods in order to preserve the art inside. That policy is due to mistakes made years earlier following the 1940 discovery of the cave paintings in Lascaux, France. After that art was discovered, the caves were opened to the public, and a combination of the carbon dioxide exhalations of the visitors and a change in air circulation introduced bacteria and dust to the art. Subsequent well-intentioned fixes, like an air-conditioning system, exacerbated the problem. First white mold took over, and more recently black mold appeared in splotches that, when removed, damaged the art irreparably.

In order not to repeat the mistakes made at Lascaux, the French Ministry of Culture never opened Chauvet to the public. You can experience the art virtually though: either via this 360-degree view online or by visiting a nearby replica of the cave. Over 700 hours of detailed scans of the original wall art went into duplicating it within a football-field-sized cave made from a metal scaffolding over a rock-colored mortar. Over that layer, artists painstakingly recreated the cave drawings on a synthetic resin that mimics the shape and shadowing of the real thing. The work of more than 500 people, from engineers to special-effects specialists, went into this $62.5 million copy.

Opened in April 2015, the faux caves are meant to smell and feel like the Chauvet cave just three miles away, and since the original cave will never be open to the public, it's as close as most of us will ever get to some of the earliest art created by our ancestors.