TRACCE no. 12 – by Christian Züchner
The Grotte Chauvet was discovered at Christmas 1994. A beautiful picture book came out only a few months later (Chauvet et al. 1995). It has been the main source of our knowledge and discussion up to now.
Communication at the International Rock Art Congress IRAC ´98 – Vila Real – Portugal (6-12 September 1998)
I am very grateful to J. Clottes for his kind permission to use drawings taken from his publications for my comparative plates (letter 1998-XI-12). For detail see appendix “Comparative plates”. Drawings: Marlies Kemper, Erlangen. We refer always to the German edition of Chauvet et al. 1995.
The Grotte Chauvet was discovered at Christmas 1994. It is situated near the upper end of the huge Ardèche Canyon in front of the famous Pont-d´Arc, a natural bridge spanning over the river. Only a few days later the information about the discovery of a unique, extremely old cave sanctuary spread all over the world. A beautiful picture book came out only a few months later (Chauvet et al. 1995). It has been the main source of our knowledge and discussion up to now.
In 1995 Clottes took the view in an epilogue to the book of Chauvet et al.(1995) that the art of Grotte Chauvet is more or less homogeneous and originates from the Solutrean period (Clottes in Chauvet et al. 1995, 110-113). At that time, AMS-dates were not yet available. Clottes himself emphasized, that direct dating of rock art may yield very useful results, but should not be used uncritically (Clottes 1994; 1997; cf. also Rosenfeld & Smith 1997). But the tide turned immediately after the publication of the first AMS- und 14C – dating. A stratigraphical sequence of black paintings (ca. 32,000 – 30,000 BP) – calcite layer – black torch mark (ca. 26,000 BP) yielded seemingly coherent results: the dates of the stratigraphically earlier paintings are higher than that of the torch marks on the calcite layer covering some paintings after an unknown span of time (Clottes et al. 1995).
As a consequence of these very high AMS-dates, Grotte Chauvet is now considered to be an Aurignacian sanctuary, previous to all other cave art. This opinion is taken for granted by different authors. The dates figure in modern comprehensive publications, although they are totally inconsistent with the traditional and generally accepted history of palaeolithic art (e.g. Lorblanchet 1997, 267-270). This “classical” chronology is not an evolunistic, theoretical one, but based mainly on archaeological criteria taken from stratigraphical observations at prehistoric sites, from superpositions of paintings and engravings and the comparison with portable art coming from settlement layers. Nevertheless archaeological argumentation is getting out of fashion (Lorblanchet & Bahn 1993). Stylistic dating is declared to be questionable by some authors.
“Radiocarbon determinations have been privileged on the basis of their status as the results of objective, scientific research, an attitude clearly rooted in what Feyerabend (1975) called the socially privileged status of science” (Rosenfeld & Smith 1997, 409). But in fact, even those colleagues, claiming we are living in a post-stylistic era and denying the validity of archaeological argumentation, use style for dating, whenever direct dating is not possible. Stylistic observations are naturally not safe from errors, but are used with very good results by classical archaeology, art history, linguistics etc. Even prehistoric research argues with the “style”, i.e. the “typology” of prehistoric objects. No one would accept a Magdalenian harpoon as Aurignacian, a Medieval dagger as a Bronze Age one only because of a radiocarbon date. Such a determination would be rejected as aberrant. The origin of the suspicion of stylistic dating may be that “stylistic analyses” in prehistoric literature are normally very superficial and are never up to standard customary in history of art or Greek and Roman archaeology.
AMS-dating of rock art yielded at Niaux and other caves results in accordance with our expectation (Clottes 1994; Clottes et al. 1992; Valladas et al. 1992; Züchner 1993). Therefore we cannot reject dates only because they do not fit to our concepts. But we may not trust in direct dating uncritically. At Grotte Cosquer (Clottes & Courtin 1995) for instance the dates of two black bisons, which are not identical, but very similar, differ about 8000 years (Clottes 1997; Clottes et al. 1996)! That is a very long space of time even in palaeolithic scale covering Gravettian and Solutrean periods, i.e. the art of Pair-non-Pair, Le Combel, Pech-Merle and parts of Lascaux! (Figure 1). The sequence of the Cueva de Parpalló near Valencia proves that style and type of animals and symbols changed considerably during these millennia (Villaverde 1992; Villaverde Bonilla 1994). We are not able to imagine, that artistic conventions stayed in one cave nearly unchanged about eight millennia, all the more Cosquer and Parpalló belong to a kindred cultural sphere and have many details in common.
The hypothesis, that the paintings of Grotte Chauvet could be the creation of outstanding Aurignacian artists antedating all known art, is taken for granted in present literature (e.g. Clottes 1995; 1996), and spread all over the world by mass media. This fact and the uncritical acceptance of science by non-scientists prevent an unprejudiced consideration of the chronological problems. But in my opinion, there are enough valid arguments to assume that the magnificent drawings and paintings of Grotte Chauvet are not the creation of some outstanding Aurignacian artists, having no predecessors and no successors, but belong mainly to Gravettian, Solutrean and Early Magdalenian (Züchner 1995; 1996). The argumentation, “dangerous animals” (Hahn 1986; Clottes 1995; 1996) are the typical fauna of Aurignacian art and therefore the AMS-dates are reliable and vice versa, is a classical circulus vitiosus. The same “dangerous animals” could also be taken as a typical Magdalenian fauna! Dates around 15,000 BP would fit very well to the mass of lions, cave bears, rhinos etc. coming into fashion at the turn of Early to Middle Magdalenian at Lascaux (Cabinet des felines; Leroi-Gourhan 1965, 256), Le Gabillou (Gaussen 1964), La Marche (Pales & Saint Péreuse 1969) etc.. Hahn´s concept of “Kraft und Aggression” (power and aggression) as leitmotiv of Aurignacian art should not be valid even in his own sphere of work in SW-Germany! It is only one facet of the Aurignacian art, as there exist also statuettes of a bison, a horse and a human being at the Vogelherd, i.e. of a “normal” fauna. It is extremely dangerous to argue with such a small number of objects. They may be a very small section of a greater whole we do not know. The quality of the ivory statuettes points by itself to an artistic tradition testified only at three sites in SW-Germany (Vogelherd, Geissenklösterle, Hohlenstein-Stadel) (Müller-Beck & Albrecht 1987; Werberger 1994) and one in Austria (Stratzing-Rehberg) (Neugebauer-Maresch 1989).
The Aurignacian art of France is restricted to so-called vulvas, some footprints of lions or cave bears and very simple animals (Delluc 1991). There may be some reasons to assume that the engravings of Pair-non-Pair belong to the Aurignacian and not to the Gravettian layers of the cave (Delluc 1991). But even if this scope could be proven as correct, there exists no resemblance between Chauvet and Pair-non-Pair.
As Grotte Chauvet is accepted as an Aurignacian sanctuary by outstanding authorities on French rock art, a refutation of AMS-results requires a detailed and really conclusive argumentation. It would be useful to draw up the stylistic development of each species of animals on the basis of well dated examples (GRAPP 1993). Only then differences and congruences would leap to the eyes even for those who are not trained in stylistic analyses and who have no profound knowledge of palaeolithic art in general. This effort requires a long experience with palaeolithic art, an enormous amount of comparative material and an extensive discussion of each detail. By obvious reasons we have to confine us to the most convincing parallels and refrain from discussing the discriminating elements. Unfortunately, the basis of our argumentation is still very small. We are forced to rely on the splendid publication of Chauvet, Brunel Deschamps, Hillaire and the articles of Clottes. Future will bring to light many other details and supplementary arguments.
Only future will prove whether we are right or not. Whatever will happen, severe problems will raise: Why are the AMS-dates nearly twice as high as the archaeological ones? Or how can we explain vice versa the fact that so many details of the Aurignacian paintings return after a brake of about 15,000 years in the Early and the beginning of Middle Magdalenian?
The art of Grotte Chauvet
Apart from engravings mostly unpublished until today, there are two main groups of representations at Grotte Chauvet: a red and a black series of drawings and paintings. The red ones are centred near the ancient entrance, the black ones in the interior part of the cave Clottes 1998, 117-122). There are some superpositions proving the red series as the earlier one (Clottes in Chauvet et al. 1995, 81-116). The colour by itself is not a criterion to distinguish between old and young! Red and black may be used at the same time. Decisive are mainly differences in details, themes and symbols. Indeed the differences between red and black series could not be greater. The red one is characterized by signs like dots, handprints, bracket- or breast-like signs etc. and static animal silhouettes, the black one by other types of signs and species of animals, by naturalism and sometimes by powerful movement. Whereas the red series has mainly parallels in Gravettian or Early Solutrean art, the black series corresponds in many details with the cave and portable art of Early and to a less degree of Middle Magdalenian, even if there is also a great number of special features not known in other caves up to now.
The age of the red series
If we accept the stratigraphical sequence of AMS – dates and of the red and black pictures, we are forced to consider the red ones to be of Aurignacian if not of even earlier origin. An analysis of signs and animals contradicts such a conclusion.
For detailed information about the selected examples see the adherent list of comparative plates. We refrain from references to generally known cave sanctuaries, as we take for granted prehistorians are familiar with them.
Handprints: handprints occur all over the world in many different areas and cultures. But in Europe they are restricted to palaeolithic cave art and wherever we have some information about the age of negative handprints, they originate from Gravettian period (Abri Labattut, Abri du Poisson: Delluc 1991, 158, 222; Fuente del Salín: Moure-Romanillo et al. 1984/85). Positive hands may belong even to Early Solutrean. (Figure 2)
Dots: red and black dots are widespread in cave art. They start perhaps in Aurignacian, if not in Late Mousterian period. The “cupules” on the tombstone of a Neanderthaler´s grave at La Ferrassie (Peyrony 1934) may be considered to be the sculptured version of such dots. Single dots, irregular and well structured groups of dots are a typical element of Gravettian and Solutrean cave sanctuaries. They got out of use during the first half of Magdalenian, are unknown in Upper Magdalenian sites (cf. also Villaverde Bonilla 1994) and re-appeared in portable art not until the Azilian. Handprints and dots occur side by side e.g. at Pech-Merle, i.e. they are typical signs of Gravettian period. (Figure 3)
Butterfly or birdlike signs: these signs of Grotte Chauvet have no exact parallel in other caves. But anyway they are unique. Most similar are the breastlike sign of Le Portel (Ariège) (Beltrán et al. 1966, No. 22), the reliefs in the Roc de Vézac Cave (Dordogne) (Atlas 1984, 242) and the ivory pendants of the Gravettian site of Dolní Vestonice (Moravia) (e.g. Freund 1957). At least one of Chauvet´s signs (Chauvet et al. 1995, Fig. 15) has much in common with the red drawings of La Pasiega (Breuil et al. 1913, Fig. 21) in northern Spain. The “butterflies” of Chauvet may be the realistic predecessors of the varied family of so-called “signes en accolade” (bracket signs) or of “Le Placard type”. (Clottes et al. 1990). Excavations at Le Placard proved them as Solutrean. But there are firm arguments to assume an earlier origin of the type. (Figure 4)
Crosses: this very simple sign is not as unique as declared in some publications. ‘Crosses’ exist at Lascaux (Salle des Taureaux) and are dated to the end of Solutrean or the beginning of Magdalenian (Leroi-Gourhan & Allain 1997). They may originate even earlier. The cross of Grotte Chauvet seems to be connected with a fringed rectangle. But the photo in the picture book does not allow a reliable statement. (Figure 4)
Rectangle crossed by lines: rectangles crossed by lines or with fringes at both sides are well documented at La Pileta (rock art) (Breuil et al. 1915; Dams 1987) and at Cueva de Parpalló (portable art), where they do not occur before the Late Solutrean (Villaverde-Bonillas 1994). (Figure 4)
Animals: In contrast to signs, animals by themselves give no good information about their age. “Dangerous animals” are not confined to one period! They are only one facet of their time, “gentle” or “normal” animals, like horse and bison, the other. Most species occur during the whole upper palaeolithic. Only the percentage of representations changes considerably in the course of time. Relevant information about the age of red animals can be gained only by general stylistic elements. A striking feature is the fact that most red animals of Grotte Chauvet are drawn with great experience. The artists would be able to show the animals realistic and three-dimensional, i.e. with four legs, one behind the other in correct perspective, like the painters of the black series. But it was not their intention to do so; they preferred two-dimensional silhouettes with one leg per pair or legs arranged side by side. According to the Parpalló sequence and some other complexes of portable art, three-dimensionality is gained during Upper Solutrean and only since then regularly used (Villaverde 1992). The style of the red animals, not their species, fits very well to that of Cougnac: the Megaloceroses are drawn very exactly, but only as silhouettes. Cougnac is dated by AMS-measurements and other reasons to Gravettian (Lorblanchet 1993; Valladas et al. 1993) or the Early Solutrean. A supplementary argument yields the Great Cave of Arcy-sur-Cure (Baffier & Girard 1998): a red cave bear, datable to Gravettian by good reasons, could also be taken as part of Chauvet´s bestiary. (Figure 5)
From these and other observations we should conclude: the red series of Grotte Chauvet, as far as we can judge from the preliminary reports, originates mainly from Gravettian. Some very roughly outlined animals may be older, perhaps even Aurignacian, others may belong already to Early Solutrean. As Villaverde Bonilla worked out by his analysis of the well stratified material of the Cueva de Parpalló, the emergence of new lithic artefacts does not coincident with breaks or dividing lines in palaeolithic art. According to him, the transition from early to Middle Solutrean brings much more new tendencies in art, than that of Gravettian to Early Solutrean (Villaverde Bonilla 1994; Züchner 1997).
The age of the black series
The differences between red and black series could not be greater. The red series is characterized by some special types of signs and static silhouettes of animals species, the black one by other signs, by three-dimensionalism and movement and by a great variety of species.
Signs: Only a few signs have been published up to now. Unfortunately, nothing is known about the most decisive type, centred at the end of one branch of the cave: the Gallery of Lattices. If these lattices are not only crossing lines, but in fact structured symbols, they belong to the Final Solutrean or Early Magdalenian according to the sequences of Parpalló (Villaverde Bonilla 1994) and Abri Lachaud (Cheynier 1965), like those of Lascaux, Le Gabillou etc. A great black vulva near the so-called sorcerer at the end of the cave is difficult to date (Chauvet et al. 1995, fig. 93). But it is definitely not an Aurignacian, but most likely a Magdalenian type. Wavy lines combined with animals (Chauvet et al. 1995, fig. 30) are a typical phenomenon of Magdalenian symbolism according to rock art and portable art. (For the origin and development of wavy lines see e.g. Villaverde Bonilla 1994).
Rhinoceros: Rhinos occur from Aurigancian to Magdalenian in Eastern and Western Europe in form of statuettes, engravings and cave art. In Western Europe most of them belong to the Magdalenian in general (Lascaux, Rouffignac, Les Combarelles, Trois-Frères, La Colombière/Ain etc.) (good examples in: Graziosi 1956; Leroi-Gourhan 1965). The black rhinos of Grotte Chauvet are totally different from the red ones in details, movement, perspective, etc. One of the AMS-dated rhinos is very similar to an engraving of Trois-Frères, which shows according to the photo in Bégouen & Breuil 1958 (Pl. XVI, b) even the curious M-like ears. The black rhinos of Chauvet are unique in some way, but they differ totally from the red ones. Some of them would not surprise in cave sanctuaries of Middle Magdalenian. (Figure 6)
Bovids: Male and female bovids (bos primigenius) are in contrast to bisons a favoured motive of Gravettian, Solutrean and Early Magdalenian (Badegoulian) in France and Spain, but they appear even later in Magdalenian context (e.g. Mas-d´Azil, Grotte de la Mairie à Teyjat, Levanzo etc.; cf. Graziosi 1956). General habit, proportions and details of representations change in the course of time considerably. Only one detail may be cited. The horns of bos primigenius are shown in twisted perspective from the beginning of cave art until Early Magdalenian (e.g. in Lascaux) and sometimes even later. In contrast to the ancient style, the horns of the aurochses of Grotte Chauvet are seen in strict side view, pointing forward in an S-curve. This way to represent the horns of bos primigenius – the exact congruence is important – came into fashion during Early Magdalenian and continues until Late Magdalenian. It is to be found from Western Europe to Southern Italy (e.g. Cueva de Parpalló, Mas-d´Azil, La Vache, Grotte de la Mairie, Le Trou de Chaleux, Levanzo etc.). One may argue that there are some bovids with horns pointing forward at Cueva de Parpalló (Villaverde 1992) and Ebbou (Graziosi 1956) of Early to Middle Solutrean context. But this does not contradict to our argumentation, as the heads and bodies of these animals differ fundamentally from those of Chauvet and other Magdalenian examples. (Figure 7)
Bisons: They occur during the whole upper palaeolithic art in Eastern and Western Europe. But the earlier representations like those of Pech-Merle differ from the Magdalenian ones (e.g. in Font-de-Gaume, Altamira, Niaux etc.) in general and from that of Grotte Chauvet in particular in its whole habit and in many details. Some of the few published bisons of Chauvet have good pendants in other caves. The manner in which the heavy head and voluminous body of the AMS-dated bison (Chauvet et al. 1995, fig. 92) are represented, is exactly comparable with reliefs and paintings of Angles-sur-l´Anglin, Font-de-Gaume or El Pindal. Other details, like the mane falling between the horns, hanging from the back line etc. are documented at caves of France and Spain too. The long line of bison heads seen in front view is unique in cave art. But rows of animal heads seen in profile or front view are a characteristic element of Magdalenian portable art (good examples in: Graziosi 1956; figure 8).
Felines: Statuettes of felines are common in Aurignacian and Gravettian art of Central and Eastern Europe, but nearly unknown in Western Europe before the Early Magdalenian. Since that period, felines are not very frequent, but regularly depicted in cave and portable art (Lascaux, Le Gabillou, La Marche, Trois-Frères, Les Combarelles, La Vache etc.). (Figure 9)
Horses: Horses are one of the main subjects of palaeolithic art. Different modes or styles of representation came into fashion and disappeared in the course of millennia. The most beautiful horses of Grotte Chauvet have much in common with the horses of the “nave” of Lascaux around the great black cow. There are some similarities to the black horses of Grotte Cosquer too, which are dated to 18,820 ± 310 BP and 18,840 ± 240 BP, i.e. to Solutrean, at least in one case (horse 1: Clottes et al. 1992), whereas horse 5 is dated much earlier ( 24,730 ± 300 PP: Clottes et al. 1996). (Figure 10)
Megaloceros: The great deer is mainly known from earlier upper palaeolithic, whereas it does not occur during Magdalenian. Most famous are the representations of Pair-non-Pair, Le Combel and Cougnac of Gravettian. A little known relief of Roc-de-Sers (Upper Solutrean) (Martin 1932, Pl. II.1) may represent a megaloceros, too. It is dated stratigraphically to Upper Solutrean. At Cosquer, this species belongs to the black series dated to the same period by AMS. At least one great deer of Grotte Chauvet (Chauvet et al. 1995, Fig. 72) has similar curious stick-like legs as its counterpart at Grotte Cosquer (Clottes & Courtin 1995, Fig. 109). Such a curious styling of legs is unusual but known from some caves in France and Northern Spain in contexts suggesting a Late Solutrean or Early Magdalenian age (e.g. La Pasiega: Breuil et al. 1913, Nr. 34; Lascaux, small deer in the Salle des Taureaux: Bataille 1955, 52).(Figure 11)
Groups of animals and lines of animal heads: In many palaeolithic caves there exist rock surfaces full of animals drawn one above the other, so that it is nearly impossible to decipher them (e.g. La Lluera I, Pech-Merle, Trois-Frères). Real groups or flocks of animals like those of Lascaux came into fashion only since Late Solutrean or Early Magdalenian (Badegoulian) period. Herds are a popular motif of Magdalenian portable art. Lines of animal heads are a characteristic feature of Magdalenian portable art (good examples in Graziosi 1956). Bison heads engraved in front view carved into a shoulder blade of La Madeleine (Paillet 1996, Fig. 2) could be taken as sketches of the line of black heads at Chauvet.(Figure 12)
Deer: Representations of deer are centred on Gravettian, Solutrean and Early Magdalenian (e.g. Chuffín, Covalanas, Lascaux etc.). Later they get scarce especially in France, but they are never totally missing.
Reindeer: In contrast to deer, reindeer is nearly unknown in rock art and portable art before Middle Magdalenian (Le Gabillou, Trois-Frères, Les Combarelles, Tito Bustillo etc.). Even then it is not as much depicted as one should assume from its importance as a prey. Its occurrence in cave art is therefore a very important hint to the age of the paintings.
Owls: Owls are rare in Pleistocene art, but there exist some very fine examples at Trois-Frères and Enlène (?) (Bégouen & Breuil 1958, Pl. XI, Pl. XXXI b), Le Portel (Beltrán et al. 1966, Nr. 2) and La Viña (Fortea et al. 1990, Fig. 5.1) of Middle Magdalenian times.
Mammoth: Only a selection of red and black animals has been published. Chronologically, they should belong to the respective series.
Ibex: This species is common during whole upper palaeolithic art. Chronologically, they should belong to the respective red or black series.
Sorcerer: The so-called sorcerer or bison-man (Cauvet et al. 1995, Fig. 93) would be a clear hint to a Magdalenian origin, if he is in fact an anthropozoomorphic creature (Züchner 1972). Judging by the published photo it is not. It seems that there are two superimposing figures on the panel: a bison and two legs of a human being (?) of Magdalenian type, looking in different directions.
Movement: There are many other details at Grotte Chauvet which are comparable with those of other cave and portable art of Franco-Cantabria. We confine us to one example: the lively movement of some animals. It is exactly comparable to the bestiary of Lascaux, dated by good reasons to Final Solutrean and Early Magdalenian, and to a smaller degree to the engravings of Paraplló Cave of the same period. It is present neither before nor later. Animals of Gravettian, Solutrean and Middle to Upper Magdalenian are normally static: compare e.g. the animals of Cougnac, Pech-Merle, Font-de-Gaume, Niaux and Lascaux.(Figure 13)
From these and other arguments we have to conclude that the majority of black paintings – as far as published until today – was created at Early Magdalenian (Badegoulian). Some elements may be of Late Solutrean, the latest ones even of Magdalenian III-IV. In my opinion, Grotte Chauvet houses two different sanctuaries: one centred in Gravettian (red series), the other in Early Magdalenian period (black series). Further research may prove that there are some (red) drawings of Aurignacian period too and that it was used continuously from Gravettian to early Magdalenian as cave-sanctuary. The earlier sanctuary includes many elements well known from other sites, even if some species of animals, like cave bears, are rare in early art. The “black” sanctuary may appear singular at first sight. In some way it is in fact. There exists no sanctuary with so many rhinos and lions, organized in great herds, even if one or two species prevail in other cave, too: mammoth and rhino at Rouffignac, bison and mammoth at Pech-Merle, horse, aurochs and deer at Lascaux etc.. The way many of the black rhinos are drawn is still unknown. But all elements – animals and signs – as well as many significant details occur in rock art and portable art of Magdalenian. The mixture of known and unknown elements is not in contrast to our experience. The palaeolithic art of Spain, France and Italy follows the same general trends in the course of millennia, but each region has its special character: Dordogne, Pyrenees, Cantabria or Andalusia have their unmistakable features. Little is known about the Mediterranean caves, but we suppose future will bring new light into this area.
If we assume that the AMS dates are physically correct, then there must exist reasons causing results contradicting to archaeological evidence. Even if we rule out contamination, other events may entail aberrant results. One could be that prehistoric artists prepared charcoal with sub-fossil wood buried in river terraces or under glacial dunes. The idea may seem fantastic at first sight. But in fact there exists wood which survived in glacial sediments some hundred thousand years in very good condition. Roots and tree trunks of Allerød look sometimes so fresh that they cannot be distinguished from recent ones at first sight. Black paint prepared of this material today would appear 11,000 years old! The seemingly coherent sequence of dates may be explained by the fact that Gravettian people lightened fire and torches in the cave (Bednarik 1994 a.b). As its charcoal rests on the surface even today, it could be re-used by any later visitor to make some strokes. But there may be other reasons falsifying results of AMS dates too.
Research started only at Grotte Chauvet and it is too early to jump at conclusions! Future will show what really happened there. In my opinion, Chauvet and his friends have not discovered the oldest cave sanctuary of the world, but – regarding its age and importance – a second Lascaux.
© 1999 Dr. Christian Züchner
Institute of Prehistory – University Erlangen – Nürnberg
Institut für Ur- und Frühgeschichte – Universität Erlangen – Nürnberg
Kochstr. 4/18 – D-91054 Erlangen GERMANY
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