Cave of Prehistoric Art Becomes World Heritage Site
In the south of France is a cave that has recently been given World Heritage status by Unesco – but this is no ordinary cave.
The Decorated Cave of Pont-d’Arc, also known as Grotte Chauvet or the “prehistoric Sistine Chapel”, has walls covered with more than a thousand images; prehistoric art dating back 36,000 years.
The entrance of the cave had been blocked off from modern civilisation more than 20,000 years ago by rock fall and plant growth, causing it to only have been discovered twenty years ago, in 1994 by spelaeologist (cave expert) Jean-Marie Chauvet and his team who stumbled upon the entrance when exploring the area.
The cave entrance was found some 25 metres (82 feet) beneath the ground, branching out to cover around 800 metres (2,600 feet). Since its discovery, no more than 200 visitors are allowed inside the cave per year so as to sustain its preservation, meaning that many of the more remote parts of the cave are still yet to have been explored.
To ensure that no one can enter the cave without proper authorisation, a 500kg (79st) reinforced door seals and guards its entrance, with only three people knowing the code to open it and cameras watching around the clock.
Not only are the images in the cave the oldest drawings known to man, the cave is also now the oldest World Heritage site. Some of the artwork – which covers 8,500 square metres, or 90,000 square feet – are drawings of animals such as rhinos, bears, bison and wild cats, as well as the extinct mammoth. There are also handprints of various sizes, and the prints of some of the ancient animals depicted. Also found were the remains of large bears which are thought to have used the cave to hibernate in.
“The large number of over 1,000 drawings… as well as their high artistic and aesthetic quality, make Grotte Chauvet an exceptional testimony of prehistoric cave art,” a Unesco spokesperson said. “Its state of preservation and authenticity is exceptional, as a result of its concealment over 23 millennia.”
To share the discovery and marvel at the artwork without the risk of causing damage to the real deal, a replica of the cave, fully to scale, is currently under construction nearby, and due to open its doors to the public at some point next year.
It is thought that the cave was originally used for shamanist ritual (in which a practitioner attempts to reach altered states of consciousness as a form of religious connection with the spirit world) and that the cave wasn’t actually inhabited by humans until much later. Remnants of fireplaces and the associated carbon staining were found, as well as preserved footprints belonging to a child – possibly the oldest human footprints that can be accurately dated.
There is so much to be learned from the Decorated Cave of Pont-d’Arc, with the history of our ancestors literally pressed into the walls.
“The inscription of the cave as a World Heritage site is a wonderful tribute to the first artists in history,” said Cavern of Pont-d’Arc Grand Project President, Pascal Terrasse. “It guarantees the conservation of the cave and allows us to understand and explain its significance as heritage.”