I’d been reading, of course. And examining the photographs, the amazing images in great oversized books, some of which folded out into panels a yard long. I’d learned new vocabulary, words I certainly didn’t remember from my college French classes more than 20 years before— fouiller, to excavate; falaise, cliff; gisements, layers or beds. I’d written careful, though no doubt error-studded letters of inquiry. I’d been dreaming of animals, dreaming of caves. Then—gasp —I’d somehow been granted permission to enter one of the greatest, most significant Paleolithic cave art sites in the world: La Grotte Chauvet. Its artwork has been conclusively, through repeated testing, dated to more than 30,000 years before the present. How had this happened to me? How marvelous!
We met in an unpaved restaurant parking lot in the mountainous Ardeche region of southern France, shook hands and made introductions. Then there were forms to sign: I would not wear jewelry into the cave; I wouldn’t eat or drink or spit—_crachat!_— in the world below; I would take no photographs, wear no backpack. I’d dress in the coveralls and shoes provided. I would hold no one but myself responsible for any injury, et cetera, et cetera. I asked a few questions, and, of course, I signed the forms. Thereby I became part of a select group. Only five people at a time can enter the cave to work, in the company of watchful guides.
The archaeologist Jean Clottes would lead us; he’s worked with the images of Chauvet almost since the cave’s discovery in 1994, and he directs the research efforts there. Two others, Paule Rodrigues and Charles Challveau, attended to all the technical aspects of the trip. The other viewers were African rock art specialists Alec Campbell, with his wife, Judy, and David Coulson, with his wife, Deborah. And me.
As we made the sloping climb to the cliff, Deborah picked wildflowers —an offering she wished to leave at the entrance—and told me of her work as a landscape designer. The scholars chatted, old acquaintances. I asked several questions of Paule and Charles. Gently they both admonished Deborah when they noticed her bouquet: These woods along the Ardèche river are a natural reserve, and one mustn’t disturb the plant life. “You cannot take them back with you,” Charles said.
But when we arrive at the entrance and she quietly places her flowers against an outcropping of rock, no one scolds. Instead, there’s a flurry of preparatory activity. Charles and Paule unlock the gate to a small alcove, adjacent to the cave itself, where there’s a little office with tables, various monitoring equipment, a telephone. And, surprisingly, a coffeemaker. While the rest of us are urged to make use of the woods, since there will be no restroom breaks during the three-hour visit, coffee is brewed, chocolate is set out, and soon we are having these light refreshments, as if to fortify us with the world-traveled drug of caffeine before our journey into darkness.
After this polite ritual, we suit up. We get coveralls, ingeniously designed with a complex of zippers; we’re also encircled with climbers’ belts, to be able to clip in with carabiners for the descent, some 30 feet to the first chamber. At the entrance proper, Charles unlocks a heavy metal door. In the cramped antechamber, which seems to function as a sort of air lock, we take off our own shoes—boots, sandals, sneakers—and rummage among a collection of matching rubber shoes until we find some in our own size. We wear hard hats with excellent lamps. We’re ready for our transformation underground.
The images in Chauvet Cave have changed many views of the nature of Paleolithic art. First, they confound the notion that earlier images must have been crude, with the real flourishing of technique and mastery belonging to the Magdalenian period, roughly 18,000 to 11,500 years before the present. These paintings belong to an earlier culture: the Aurignacian, an era in which, at its earliest dates, two species of humans lived in western Europe, and especially in the Dordogne Valley and isolated pockets in Spain. In what researchers sometimes call simply the Transition, roughly 45,000-35,000 years before the present, Homo sapiens entered a landscape already home to Homo neanderthalensis. The newcomers’ arrival seems to have spurred a sudden flurry of cultural change among the indigenous Neanderthals, referred to as the Châtelperronian period. The Neanderthals began to wear jewelry, and their tools changed form slightly.
As far as we know, the Neanderthals didn’t join their new neighbors in the practice of cave painting. Only the persons who, generations upon generations later, become “us,” Africans, Europeans and their descendants throughout the diaspora of empire and emigration, were the artists who decorated the earth as well as themselves. They left rich tableaus of engraved and painted bestiaries that, sometimes, astonishingly, survived for millennia.
At Chauvet, the painters would not have lived beside their Neanderthal cousins; the artwork dates just a few thousand years too late for that. But the images preserve aspects of another world, all the same. A surprising number of woolly rhinos, rare elsewhere in Paleolithic art, are depicted throughout the cave. The great curves of their impressive horns are clear trumpet-flourishes of power and strength. Many mammoths are placed in positions that seem to trace the cave’s periphery, as if they reside ever in the distance. Some pictures may be of insects: strange, alien images that turn no eyes outward to regard the visitor, unlike the mammals that animate the walls.
Into the cave
All along the way, we mark our passage aurally, with oohhh and look! (all the guests today are English speakers). Stopping to gaze around or up or down, I sometimes brace my knees against the possibility of tumbling off the metal walkway that’s been laid down to protect the nearly pristine floor, on which we move, single file, from room to room. If the guides notice this kind of teetering, they rein us in with words, as well: Attention or Mind, now. Jean directs our gaze deeper into the Bear Chamber, where a cave bear skull has been set atop a square rock, the canines pointed downward, two once-living stalactites of enamel on this apparent altar. Or is it just where the children amused themselves, picking up bones and rocks, while the adults were at work? Both possibilities seem easy to imagine.
At some point in time, other visitors to the cave marked their way with torch wipes, rubbing the burning surface to knock off ash and renew the flame—and perhaps if the way was unknown to them, to leave signs of the route back up and out. This seems to be what happened about 27,000 years ago; a torch wipe appears, for instance, on a film of calcite that has, like a cataract, dulled part of a painted panel in the central Hillaire Chamber. None of the artwork has been dated to the same time as that carefully dated carbon, so it seems very likely a visitor, or party of visitors —like us, perhaps—came through the caverns, torchlight flickering, some 3,000 to 5,000 years after the artists first illuminated the walls.
As we make our way inward, I notice these shadows of ancient fire, these sooty smudges that mark somebody else’s passage through. Someone stopped, paused, there. And, like me, the Someone gazed at the Panel of Horses, their muscular necks, the way each head tilts at a different angle, like a line of living animals, bobbing and tossing their heads in the wind.
Pleistocene culture was static for the most part. Its technology, imagery and ways of life all persisted with only gradual change for thousands of years. Even so, whoever stepped into the chambers and looked, with surprise and delight, or perhaps with fear, at the painted figures leaning from the walls, from the darkness, from the inner depths of earth and stone, must have marveled at the scene. Who could have done this? Perhaps the caverns had stood empty, the people who used them having moved on. Or, as we say euphemistically, passed on, killed, perhaps, by a bad winter of sickness, an earthquake, some world-shaking event that disrupted their inhabitation of the handsome limestone Ardeche valley with its cold, fast river and the caves above. Perhaps a hundred generations or more passed before someone found the chamber and ventured in to see.
But whoever it was, the Someone I’m imagining came from the same world, the same glacial landscape, as the one depicted on the inner walls. For us, it is quite Other. We pause before an owl, carved in clean, sure lines on a low-hanging stone, so that it seems to be perched upon nothing, upon the ancient, unchanged air of the cave. We stare at a panel of rhinos—rhinos! In Europe! —the outlines of their horns repeated in a pattern that could indicate, some scholars think, motion, or perhaps the sense of a herd, bristling their dangerous points. I suppose we all think about the disappearance of the living animals from the landscape, as we gaze at the images that rise up, out of the dark, as we draw near.
Sometime, many thousands of years ago, the cave was closed by a collapse of the cliff. Long after the dust had dissipated, plants had grown up and people, whoever they might have been, then, living along the beautiful Ardèche River, had forgotten all about the tumble and roar, as well as what was sealed behind the barrier of stone and soil. Long, long afterward, the cave continued to hold its painted relicts of the Pleistocene. That’s one reason the images are so undamaged. They’ve been preserved with limited air exchange, little variation in temperature as the world outside warmed and chilled and warmed again. And of course, for millennia there were no visitors to carve their names over the painted animals or hold aloft their sooty torches or spit (!) or in any other way intrude on the geologic sanctuary of the cave.
I hold a map in my pocket, though I can’t see well enough to study it. It’s the work of Yanik Le Guillou, a neatly drawn chart labeled with the names that have been given to each location. The Megaloceros Gallery (named for the image of a giant Pleistocene deer, long extinct), appears on the page like a yellow peninsula extending north by northeast (though, underground, who can tell direction?). A torch wipe marks the entrance to what, in the actuality of the cave, is a tunnel, a downward-sloping passage that will take us to the End Chamber. Someone marked the way, once, there; here, we shuffle single file and share a flashlight, passing it up and down the line, with which to examine more closely some of the carvings just inches away. Charles and Paule are exquisitely attentive here. One must not touch the walls, mustn’t put out a hand to steady oneself or to pause, leaning against the stone, to look. Attention, attention.
The End Chamber
We won’t be able to stay long in the End Chamber. The oxygen level, at this low, remote cove within the cave, is also low, and our guides will monitor our time here precisely, hurrying us out when we’ve overstayed out limit. Because of the lower oxygen ratio, the Aurignacian artists couldn’t burn wood on site to prepare their charcoal pigments. Instead, they used the Megaloceros Gallery like a preparatory antechamber, and as we slowly descend the slope I see several small piles of burned wood—tiny artisan’s hearths.
I breathe in. I can smell it! At first I can’t believe it’s really the scent of char from 30,000-year old fires, but we haven’t been here long enough for lightheadedness to set in and play tricks on me. Later I’m assured that yes, it wasn’t my imagination. I would, indeed, have been able to smell those old, ghosted bones of long-dead fires. Yes.
I haven’t touched the walls. I haven’t slipped or stumbled or spat or in any way violated the surfaces of rock and clay that hold the ancient artwork. But in the End Chamber, as I gaze at the black or gray-black images along the walls—the mammoth with the rounded feet, like balls; the panels of lions; the rhinos; the bison heads, lined up along an angle of the stone like gargoyle flourishes on a building’s corner—I keep breathing in the air that’s touched by hints of soot. Rarified air, ancient air.
It’s me who is changed, changing; hidden, invisible, our bodies are taking in these transubstantial tokens, images, aromas, volatiles that enter us here in the dark world. Our group examines, exclaiming, the strange “sorcerer” figure on a stalactite. It seems to be a wooly, curly headed bison, dangling an impossibly tiny leg from the left shoulder. The lower, tapering shape of the stalactite presents what is obviously a woman’s vulva, with her thighs, as well, which become in the composition tiny, vestigial-looking legs. The combination of bison and woman calls to mind the theory of André Leroi-Gourhan, who, in the mid-20th century speculated that Pleistocene symbolism was built upon binary thinking: like the world of French nouns, a great system of masculinity and femininity, the bison represents the feminine principle, the horse the masculine. I wonder about the nomenclature for this figure. It’s been referred to as the “bison-man,” though, if there’s any merit to Leroi-Gourhan’s system, whatever transformational, shamanic or simply metaphoric power the image presents could even better be considered feminine.
Interestingly, the stalactite hangs a few yards away from a niche in the cave wall with a scalloped top that holds a charcoal drawing of a horse. From the metal walkway, if you pause at a certain spot (and, as directed, we all do), the animal seems to be emerging from the edge of the cave into a "chamber"—the niche—distanced by perspective. A few more steps and the entire figure is in view, framed handsomely by the recess in the stone. It’s a horse like those I’ve seen reproduced from Lascaux or Altamira: a huge, bulging chest and belly, nearly bursting with visual vitality. There they are: the horse, the bison. The yin and the yang of the prehistoric world, as some scholars suggest.
“Imagine,” says Jean Clottes, “if a shaman sat there, how the rock would frame him. He’d be facing the sorcerer, the horse at his back.” The animals on the wall seem all the more dangerous when I envision a priest, or a shaman, surrounded with such animate power.
Too soon, it’s time to go back. It’s disorienting to turn around on the metal mesh walkway and head slightly uphill through the Megaloceros Gallery. As we emerge, I turn again to see the torch wipe. It seems to me, after the impressive images, a nearly personal sign, almost like a hand raised in greeting or farewell.
On the way out, Jean gestures toward the northwest reaches of the cave, an area called the Chamber of the Crosshatching. We peer into the distance while Charles shines a powerful flashlight beyond the reach of our own headlamps. The area is inaccessible to us, but the research team has found footprints there—most likely those of a child, a pre-adolescent about 4 1/2 feet tall, most likely a boy, based on the shape of his feet. He seems to have come alone into the cave and walked about with his torch, deliberately marking his way with torch wipes—some of the very ones I have been noticing and which have been carefully dated by the researchers. The trail of prints seems to deliberately avoid some low spots, as if they were filled with water, though no such pools exist today.
It’s touching to imagine him moving alone through the great, decorated space, taking care that he won’t get lost and pausing repeatedly before the same images that have had us alternately gasping and silent. Perhaps he was alone all day, engaged in the kind of meditative play that is quickly disappearing from modern versions of childhood, regimented into team sports or lessons or time with virtual opponents from video games. Perhaps he was singing to himself or telling himself a story when he came across the entrance to the great cave.
Some researchers have speculated that the very flourishing of art and culture which we see in the Upper Paleolithic, what some call the Representational Revolution, is itself the result of childhood play. That is, of a longer childhood in which both solitary pretend play and what has been called “complex social pretend play”—imaginary games with friends—are allowed to flourish. In this view, the artistic upwelling of millennia ago does not emerge from any “practical problem-solving,” to use Gregory Currie’s terms. Instead, it is the cultural unfolding, the maturation of imagination, in a world where children had been able to engage in more extended, more complex and ultimately more creative play. Peter Carruthers suggests that pretend games, the animating sparks of childhood, allow the mind training in “relevant and interesting” ideas, possibilities, alternatives.
Even more intriguing, David Lewis-Williams speculates that artwork became a cultural force of exclusion, a way to differentiate the us of Homo sapiens —the people who are not only clever or smart but spiritual, imaginative—from the Others, the Neanderthals, the Infidels of another era. According to Lewis-Williams, the neurological structure of the anatomically modern human brain allows us all experiences of altered consciousness—the hallucinations, the visions—that we perceive as spirituality, and that we standardize through the protocols and rituals of the world’s various religions. Neanderthals, he suggests, with their different evolutionary neural development, could have lacked this form of insight; a lack that is suggested by the paucity of their creative art. If he’s right, this is the dark side of the aesthetic revolution that decorated the Pleistocene landscape. It’s the earliest hint of the hurtful purposes—religious wars, pogroms, exterminations of witches or heretics—to which spirituality has been put.
The boy who walked into Chauvet may have imagined himself in any of an interesting array of identities as he moved from room to room, talking out loud, perhaps, to himself or to some imagined companion. But it’s also possible he wasn’t quite alone. Close to his own tracks are those of a canid—a wolf or a large dog —that may have accompanied him. The researchers can’t yet be sure: They haven’t found a place where the prints are superimposed, one upon the other, a pattern which would show that they walked together, that afternoon, perhaps it was, or early evening, some 26,000 years ago. It’s possible the trails are unrelated, recording visits that occurred days or years or centuries apart. But it’s also possible—_imagine it_—that the tracks are intermingled traces of a joint visit.
Studies of the canid prints show they’re not quite wolf-like; the length of the middle toes seems more in keeping with the proportions we know today in dogs. But the earliest domestication of the dog we’ve known before now dates to only 14,000 years ago. If all these conjunctions hold up: that the torch marks that have been definitely dated were made by that Paleolithic child; that the two traveled together, beast and boy; and that the beast had, in the language of Rudyard Kipling, become First Friend, no longer the Wild Dog of the Wet Woods . . . Well. It’s an astonishing If.
Imagine it: Under the images of the untamed gaze of ancient animals, there in the Pleistocene reaches, deep underground, are hints of our own age, glimpsed, in the barefoot trail over mud and clay, in the black and ochre tints on the walls. The way in —deep, beautiful and, don’t forget, also terrible—and then back again.
Elizabeth Dodd directs the creative writing program at Kansas State University. Her most recent book is Prospect: Journeys & Landscapes, winner of the William Rockhill Nelson Award for nonfiction.