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Human Footprints at Chauvet Cave Volume 52 Number 5, September/October 1999
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Footprint in Chauvet Cave, France (Michel-Alain Garcia--CNRS MAE Nanterre) [LARGER IMAGE]

Recent exploration of the Chauvet Cave near Vallon-Pont-d'Arc in southern France has yielded the oldest footprints of Homo sapiens sapiens and a cavern with a dozen new animal figures. The footprints appear to be those of an eight-year-old boy, according to prehistorian Michel-Alain Garcia of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Nanterre. They are between 20,000 and 30,000 thousand years old, perhaps twice as old as those discovered previously at Aldene, Montespan, Niaux, Pech Merle, and other Upper Palaeolithic sites.

Garcia estimates that the boy was about four-and-a-half feet tall, his feet more than eight inches long and three-and-a-half inches wide. First spotted in 1994 by Jean-Marie Chauvet, the cave's discoverer, the footsteps stretch perhaps 150 feet and at times cross those of bears and wolves. The steps lead to the so-called room of skulls, where a number of bear skulls have been found. In a few places there is evidence that the boy slipped on the soft clay floor, though Garcia says the prints show the boy was not running, but walking normally. The boy appears at one point to have stopped to clean his torch, charcoal from which has been dated to ca. 26,000 years ago. The prints from the Chauvet Cave, like nearly all footprints thus far discovered in Palaeolithic caves, are from bare feet, which has led scholars to speculate that people of the time either left footwear at cave entrances or carried them.

Meanwhile, a team of 15 specialists, directed by French prehistorian Jean Clottes, recently investigated a uninventoried room originally discovered by Chauvet. There they found a dozen new paintings of mammoth, bison, and horses, among other animals. Clottes' team has so far documented 447 animals of 14 different species. By comparison, Niaux Cave in the French Pyrenees, cited by the French Palaeolithic specialist Abbé Breuil as one of the half-dozen great caves containing prehistoric art, has 110 images of six species.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America