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Book Review: Return to Chauvet Cave – Excavating the Birthplace of Art: The First Full Report by Jean Clottes

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You'll never go into Chauvet Cave. I'll never go into Chauvet Cave. Probably only a few dozen people will ever go into Chauvet Cave.

And that's as it should be, for our absence has preserved, and will continue to preserve, traces of the previous users of the cave – human beings from around 32,000 to 26,000 years ago, who left a tremendous gallery of paintings of the animals of the time (and an occasional faint trace and image of themselves) and the cave bears and other animals with which they shared it.

The magic for this French cave was that it wasn't discovered until 1996. Unlike Lascaux, and so many other such treasures, it wasn't trampled by careless 19th and 20th-century feet – subjected to the breath and probing hands of thousands (which has caused so much damage that Lascaux has now been closed).

But it hardly matters, for with this comprehensive, flamboyantly illustrated text — not so much a coffee table book as a dining table book, given its size and weight — you get pretty close to seeing everything in the cave that's yet been seen. (The careful, considered process of research means that it will be decades before everything is examined.)

The tremendous job that is exploring this cave was granted to a research consortium, and one of its promises was that it would publish and make available its results as soon as possible – and it is certainly living up to its word with this book, and doing so in a way that is both eminently serious and considered, but also perfectly accessible to the lay person. (You can get a preview on the official website.)

Everything that has been done is carefully explained and illustrated. You get to see, for example, the photograph of the footprints of a large canid at their clearest spot, then a drawing made from them, which makes them far clearer to the non-expert eye. Then the way this is done is explained – with a picture of a person making the cast from which the drawing was done. The text explains why this helps.

You get the feeling that every word in the text was carefully considered: take that "canid" – not "dog", and not "wolf", and that's because "the morphology of the autopodia differs from the wolf's in that the relative length of the middle digits is reduced". But, the first proven evidence of a dog is 14,000 years ago, far after this print was made, although "genetics studies are putting forward a serious argument for the wolf transforming into the dog around 100,000 years ago".

But it is not just animal tracks. There's a human track, one that can be followed for a considerable distance, and that will almost certainly be followed further in the future. Just one track, of one person. Based on comparison with modern Europeans — who are known to be broadly comparable to Cro-Magnons — "the prints must be those of a pre-adolescent about 1.3m (4.5 feet) tall. The low length/width ratio … rather suggests a boy."

There's more. At various points the boy wipes a clay-stained hand on the walls, leaving print, and along his path there are scrape marks from the torch – scrape marks that were clearly placed to mark the route through the labyrinthine cave. The carbon of those marks has been dated to 26,000 years ago – 4,000 years newer than any of the dates in the cave.

Even in the cautious language of science, there's a very clear story to be told. We don't know, almost certainly can never know, what the boy made of the paintings as he explored the cave, but he was almost certainly looking at something strange and wonderful, exploring for reasons that we can only guess at. There might be more to the story — for the track of the canid and the boy, in the pasts explored thus far — appear to follow much the same route. (This is the only evidence anywhere found for a canid in the cave. It certainly suggests another element in the story.)

That's only a small part of Return to Chauvet's Cave, although I found it the most exciting. What the book does is begin with a short survey of the discovery of the cave and research techniques, a scan of its environment today, and when it was in use. It then examines the cave's art in two ways, working through chamber by chamber and making the important point of looking at the blank spaces as well as the art. Clearly the artists had an intention, a purpose, in leaving bare spaces that might have been decorated.

What is also clear is that there is a distinct pattern to the depictions: "The cave can be viewed as two collections, which were used differently: up to the Candle Gallery, with the majority of red figures, its panels of hand dots and its bears; the second part … with an abundance of engravings and black paintings organised in great panels. Aurochs, bison and deer are only found in these deep areas."

The drawings not only have an intellectual coherence, but a stylistic one. Clottes writes, "We conclude that most figures were drawn by a very small number of people who shared the same ideas, probably during a fairly short period of time, even during the period when the cave was first visited by humans". The boy, and his people, if they added anything at all, did so in a way that was indistinguishable.

Then the text closely studies the techniques, and it is clear here — if it wasn't already from the spectacular images — that this is a sophisticated, developed artistic culture. For example, "By stumping, mixing the pigment with the clay on the surface of the limestone, the artists succeeded in creating volumes, thanks to the numerous shades of greys, browns and sepias." Finally it looks at the depictions of different animals and symbols – possibly where it gets most frustrating, since we of course know nothing of the meaning behind the choices, and quite probably never will.

This isn’t to say that people aren't dying to try, and that's how the book concludes, with an essay by an anthropologist, Joelle Robert-Lamblin, who, while accepting the dangers of comparing contemporary ethnographic observations with prehistoric remains, suggests that this can open up the "scientific imagination". Doing that, he concludes that "two systems of depiction are found together: one of them is figurative, extremely realistic, revealing the artists' skill in observing nature; the second system which compromises not forms but sign is symbolic … the walls thus seem to reveal an Aurignacian art that is profoundly marked by the theme of duality."

Then, of course, with weary inevitability, we reach the point of gender difference where Robert-Lamblin suggests that the difference in art in the earlier stages of the cave and later, which "could indicate that different individuals were given access to the cave in different places: women, children, and non-initiates perhaps entered the first part of the cave, whereas only veritable 'initiates' could go deeper. (Or, entirely equally probably, men might have been excluded and the women were the initiates – no evidence either way!)

I do agree with Robert-Lamblin on the fascinating interaction between humans and bears. Both shared this space and perhaps sometimes struggled over it. In places the humans seem to have clearly tried to cover up bear scratch marks; in others, the bears — presumably not acting with the same intent — have almost destroyed the human handiwork.

There's much, much more in this book and its discoveries. One fascinating subject for the expert is its apparent shooting down of a traditional division of the black and red paintings into different periods. The only more I can say is get hold of this book from a library or bookstore, and read it. It is a grown-ups book, but if you know a curious, bright, questing pre-teen or early teen child — one who's interested in history and geology and botany — I'd lay hands on this book and read it with them: you'll have a paleontologist on your hands before you know it.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • bliffle

    Excellent article!

    Thank you for bringing this fascinating book and cave to our attention.