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Chauvet Cave: 1994

In December 1994, in the Ardèche region of southern France, three expert potholers decide to explore a small cavity (only about 30 inches high and 10 inches wide) among the vegetation high on a hillside. A little way in, they reach a sheer drop of 30 feet. It leads them into a vast cave system, previously unkown.

The floors are littered with the bones and skulls of bears which long ago made a habit of hibernating here. And the walls are covered with paintings.

It will be many years before the superb images in this cave are fully studied, but two rare characteristics rapidly become evident. One is the unusual selection of animals depicted. In most palaeolithic art the paintings are of hunted animals - bison, cattle, horses, deer. Here it is the dangerous animals which predominate - rhinoceroses, lions and mammoths.

The other discovery, from the first scientific tests, is even more startling. The earliest of the paintings analyzed turns out to have been created about 31,000 years ago. This is slightly older than the first known paintings in Africa, and approximately twice as old as the cave art of Lascaux and Altamira.

Humans never lived in this great cave; they only used it for the mysterious purpose of their art. The rubbish on the floors belongs to the bears, whose presence here predates the human visits. One of the strangest sights of the cave is a bear's skull placed on a slab of stone, but it appears that it is not an altar. The stone is a piece of rock fallen from the roof; apparently an ancient visitor considers it a good place for the skull.

The paintings here are clearly among the greatest examples of palaeolithic art. The finders name the cave after one of their number, Jean-Marie Chauvet, who since 1993 has been a curator of decorated caves in the Ardèche. Chauvet will acquire a resonance equal to Lascaux and Altamira.

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