The Miracle at Chauvet

Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave, The Oldest Known Paintings in the World

by Jean-Marie Chauvet and Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire
135 pp., $39.95

Magnum miraculum est homo (man is a great miracle). These opening words of an esoteric text much beloved of Renaissance philosophers came to my mind when turning the pages of the two spectacular books under review, pages that illustrate the works of men, some of whom lived about 30,000 years ago, who mysteriously covered the walls of caves in southern France with strikingly vivid pictures of rhinoceroses and horses, bison, lions, and other creatures including birds and fishes.

Somewhat similar representations have, of course, been known for many years in the caves of Spain and the Dordogne, but these recent discoveries surpass even the famous cave of Lascaux, both in age and archeological interest. The earlier of these discoveries, the cave of Cosquer, was made in July 1991, by divers who had previously found the entrance under the present sea level of the Mediterranean, not far from Marseilles. The second, even more sensational find occurred as late as December 1994, near the estuary of the Rhône, and was named the cave of Chauvet after its first explorer, Jean-Marie Chauvet.

Similar as these books are in layout and subject matter, they differ widely in tone and presentation. The volume on the Cosquer cave is a factual, scientific account, offering statistical tables and rich bibliography. The main chapters of the book on the Chauvet discovery read more like a breathless commentary on the astounding sights that came into view when the team first penetrated into the subterranean chambers. The authors of both books were members of the original teams of speleologists, and both books were published in France with commendable speed. Not, however, before laboratory tests of samples had established the relevant dates of human intervention (32,410 å± 720 BP for Chauvet, and 27,100 å± 350 BP for the tracing of a hand at Cosquer).1 The astounding photographic plates thus show us the oldest known works of this kind.

Few comparable finds have been made accessible to the general public in an equally informative way, which is all the more welcome, since the sites will certainly have to be protected from ordinary mortals for many years to come. True, those of us who have visited some of the caves in the Dordogne, and were even so lucky to still be allowed into that of Lascaux, will realize that the experience cannot be conveyed by the most faithful photographs. It is in the nature of things that these cannot fully render the rocky surface with its bumps and hollows, which may often have served the early artists as starting points for their images—they can even less reproduce the darkness of the setting, fitfully lit up by the pocket torch of the guide to reveal these astonishing renderings of long-extinct species. Even so, the reader will begin to understand how it was that for a long time in the past, discoveries of this kind were met with skepticism and incredulity. Indeed, throughout the second half of the nineteenth century—after the first painted…

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