Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Books: Earliest Masterpieces Volume 57 Number 1, January/February 2004
by Blake Edgar

[image] Detail of a horse from Chauvet Cave's famed Alcove of the Lions (C. Fritz and G. Tosello, Chauvet Cave Project) [LARGER IMAGE]

It's been ten years since a trio of cave explorers became perhaps the first humans to enter Chauvet Cave for 26,000 years, discovering some of France's most stunning cave art. Since then, much information about its ancient artists has been coaxed from the cave's limestone walls.

The latest findings, along with stunning photographs of charcoal drawings and engravings, can be found in Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2003; $45).

As the book details, the walls of Chauvet are decorated with 425 animal depictions from 14 species, most notably large carnivores and other awe-inspiring mammals. Nearly two dozen radiocarbon dates on charcoal images suggest artists began working there 32,000 years ago, which makes Chauvet the oldest known decorated cave (though the age of the images is still the source of some controversy).

These talented artists closely observed and understood their subjects. Analysis of the famous panel of four horse heads shows how the artist or artists carefully scraped and engraved around each muzzle to enhance the relief and emphasize anatomical details. Scenes of lions depict courting and hunting behavior biologists can clearly recognize today.

A particularly rare and enigmatic image came to light when one team member extended a digital camera from the end of a telescoping rod to peer behind a hanging rock. There he found a hidden bison-headed human figure drawn beside a woman's torso and legs.

Such fantastic images invite speculation, but the text favors mostly straightforward description. A chamber-by-chamber tour of the artwork, with handy reference maps, comprises half of the book. Research will continue in Chauvet for years, and no doubt more discoveries will emerge. But for now, this book should satisfy the curiosity of those of us who will never venture beyond the cave's entrance.

Blake Edgar is coauthor of The Dawn of Human Culture (2001)

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America