Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave paintings 10,000 years older than previously thought

14th April, 2016
A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has revealed that some of the world’s oldest prehistoric artworks, cave drawings located at the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in south-eastern France, are in fact 10,000 years older than previously thought.

A radiocarbon dating study was carried out on the red and black cave drawings, drawing the conclusion that the artworks were actually more than 30,000 years old. Scientists and archaeologists had previously believed that the art was stylistically similar to the cave paintings at Lascaux in south-western France, and were therefore around 20,000 years old.

After analysing samples of charcoal from the cave floor and walls, the study found that the cave had seen two phases of human occupation. The first was from 37,000 to 33,500 years ago, ending when a rockfall occurred in one section of the cave, while the second period was from 31,000 to 28,000 years ago, with the end of occupation correlating with a second rockfall partially closing off the cave entrance.

Anita Quiles, a scientist at the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo, who worked on the study, said: “What is new in our study is that we have established the chronology of the cave for the first time in calendar years.

“We can now say with certainty that there has been no human activity in the Chauvet cave for about 30,000 years.” 

Spanning 18 years, the study involved a statistical model covering 250 dates gathered from samples of charcoal and bone. Scientific director for Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, Jean-Michel Geneste, said “This is pretty revolutionary for us. It is a new tool which could be used elsewhere to study other ancient time periods.

“We can now confirm that 36,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic period when modern tools, art and jewelry-making techniques appeared, we already had art that was quite evolved, accomplished, and already the object of a very long memory and a long cultural tradition in western Europe.”

Following the bone analysis, the bones were identified as having belonged to cave bears. No human remains were found inside, which has led the researchers to believe that the cave was a visiting place rather than a place where the humans lived.

447 drawings of animals including horses, deer and rhinoceroses can be found in the cave, which was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, 20 years after it was first discovered. Situated in the Ardeche department, a short drive from many of our villas in Provence, the cave is unfortunately not open to the public, in order to help preserve the artwork, though a replica situated just a mile and a half away opened last year, and is open to the public.

Image: Claude Valette, available under Creative Commons