Chauvet Cave the discovery of 36,000-year-old art

Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave, France

The discovery of Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave on December 18, 1994 shocked the world. A team of explorers lead by Jean-Marie Chauvet squeezed through a tiny rock opening in the gorge of the Ardèche River in Southern France.

aerial view of the gorge of the Ardèche, France
An aerial view of the gorge of the Ardèche with its natural bridge. Chauvet cave is in the cliff on the left side of the abandoned oxbow.

Inside, they discovered a previously unknown cave filled with paleolithic cave paintings.

Chauvet Cave pictographs
A portion of the Horse Panel in Chauvet Cave, France.

Unknown to modern humanity, that is.

wooly rhinos in Chauvet cave
A detailed photograph of 2 woolly rhinoceros on the wall of Chauvet pont d’Arc cave in France.

They obviously weren’t the cave’s first human visitors, for artwork of unimaginable antiquity covered the walls.

a 3D model of the lion panel

They stood in awe, surrounded by paintings, charcoal drawings, and etchings of transcendent artistic beauty.

Aurochs pictograph
Aurochs (Bos primigenius) on the wall of Chauvet Cave, Ardèche France

The skills of the artists shone through the dim eons. Our distant ancestors had used perspective, shading, and the natural contours of the cave to enhance the aesthetic glories of the Ice Age menagerie roaming the walls. The artists had created images of cave lions and panthers, woolly rhinos, hyenas, bison, megaloceros, and mammoths among cave bears, an owl, horses, stags, ibex, musk oxen, and the outline of a human hand. Flickering ancient torchlight would have gifted movement to the magnificent creatures.

passage of the megaloceros
The Passage of the Megaloceros in Chauvet Cave. This passage leads to the lower levels of the cave and features a woolly rhino and a Megaloceros, both animals long extinct.

Many of the depicted animal species had gone extinct or vanished from Europe thousands of years before. Subsequent studies proved the images to be up to 37,000 years old.

horse mud glyph in Chauvet Cave
26,000-year-old horse mud glyph

Although we have no way of knowing exactly what the images meant to their creators, the existence of such a Sistine Chapel of ancient art forever quashed the idea that our “primitive” ancestors somehow lacked the intellectual sophistication of modern humans.

 cave hyenas (Crocuta crocuta spelaea)
A painting of European cave hyenas (Crocuta crocuta spelaea) in Chauvet cave, France. Experts believe this painting started as a cave bear but was later modified to represent a cave hyena.

A collapse sealed the cave’s original entrance some 21,000 years ago.

a small wooly rhino painting
A small, delicate painting of a woolly rhinoceros in Chauvet Pont d’Arc cave.

Without our urge to explore—to expand the boundaries of human knowledge, to see, learn, create, and feel things no person has ever experienced—we moderns would live in ignorance of the artistic treasures our distant ancestors brought forth on the walls of Chauvet’s Cave.

Keep scrolling down to see more incredible images from Chauvet.

March 2021

A megaloceros without its antlers painted in Chauvet Cave, France.
cave lions in Chauvet Cave
A lion carved into the wall of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc. The cave is famous for paintings that experts believe to be more than 36,000 years old.
rhino drawn in red ochre
Rhinos and mammoths painted on the walls. The bones on the floor are from paleolithic cave bears
a painted horse in Chauvet cave
A horse painted in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave.

Story by Gregory Crouch

All images copyright Stephen Alvarez

Limited edition Chauvet prints are available here(Chauvet Portfolio). Print sales help fund the Ancient Art Archive.