Perhaps you too find it hard to fully grasp the magnitude of time. Of course we know the answer to the question of how long the world has existed; we can quickly tap the query into Google and in a matter of seconds read numbers that explain our time continuum—the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, plus or minus 1 per cent, of which homo sapiens have existed for about 200,000 years. Yet actually feeling this quantification of time arguably requires something beyond our physical capabilities. Each of our bodies takes us through a hundred years, if we’re lucky, so to really feel the immense scale of time’s passing is difficult for us to compute, regardless of our cognitive understanding. When we look at ancient images or objects, we might sometimes think, I can’t quite believe how old it really is.
Looking back over the past year, I can feel how time keeps ticking regardless of everything, and yet it’s hard to pin down its elapse. In the blink of an eye seconds seep into minutes, days into months, years into decades. Sometimes you expect time to stop. That the magnitude of your experiences, of the world’s occurrences might bring things to a halt: Brexit in Britain, Trump in America, AfD advancement in Germany, that any of these might cause the world to pause, to seize up with fear or grief, with a refusal to carry on. But on and on it goes.
These thoughts flow through me when I think about the Chauvet Caves in Provence. I look at the figures charting just how old its cave paintings are—approximately 32,000 years—and yet when I feast my eyes upon their fluidity of line, composition, shading, sense of dynamism, anatomical accuracy and character, the idea that ancient Palaeolithic artists rendered their reality with such sophistication seems remarkable. How can the world have spun so many times, how can our society have changed so much, and yet so little?
The cave is reached by following the meandering Ardeche River in Southern France, which cuts through a deep gorge of white rocky cliffs and rich green vegetation. A stark landmark along this river is a grand arch, Pont d’Arc, with soft carbonates that would have been eroded by the river, eventually creating a sheltered valley where humans and animals lived. For Palaeolithic people, a glacier would have covered most of Europe. The weather would have been dry and cold but with beaming sunshine and a verdant biomass would have seen animals including woolly rhinos and mammoths (now both extinct) accompanied by deer, bison, antelope, lions, wolves, leopards, foxes and hyenas.
The Chauvet cave was discovered a few days before Christmas in 1994 by three speleologists, one being Jean-Marie Chauvet, after whom the cave is named. These explorers set out along the rock face trying to feel out air channels being emitted from the cracks. Sensing such a flow, they cleared away rocks to reveal a hole in the cliff, unaware that they were about to discover one of the most significant prehistoric sites of art ever found, which would soon be awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO.
Having been sealed for tens of thousands of years, the cave would have been originally at ground level before a cliff collapsed and blocked the opening. Chauvet and his companions entered the cave by crawling through a tiny space, which has now been expanded and locked with a steel door to enable climate control. Just imagine being the first person for millennia to witness these sights; perhaps it felt as if the world did stop for them, time momentarily concertinaing, bridging the gap with our ancient ancestors.
A team of archaeologists and scientists, headed by Jean Clottes, has since studied these caves to reveal many aspects of their makeup. Upon the floor, waves of calcite creates a ripple effect, around which hundreds of bones lie scattered; cave bear skulls, a golden eagle skeleton; even the foot prints of a wolf and an eight-year-old boy are discernable. The space itself drips with stalactites that have been seemingly frozen in time, coated with layers of sparkling calcite and accretions, which take thousands of years to grow and appear as cascading glitter. These would have formed after the cave was blocked by the collapse, so our ancestors would have experienced its topography differently.
The cave paintings are so fresh that their authenticity was initially doubted. It was the testing of the calcite layers above the mark making that proved they were not forgeries. A series of large red ochre dots made with the palm of the hand are the only marks to be encountered in the first big chamber. When the cave was open and accessible 32,000 years ago, this area would have received a considerable amount of light, which tells us that the bulk of the paintings were generally done further back because these spaces where sheltered by darkness. The cluster of palm prints would have been applied by crouching and then, sequentially, stretching upwards. The man who made them would have been approximately six feet tall, with a remarkable physical feature that allows us to repeatedly identify him through the cave: a slightly crooked little finger.
As you move further inside, layered drawings begin to fill the walls—hundreds of paintings that depict more than thirteen different species, some of which were drawn nearly 5000 years apart. They would have been created by initially scraping the walls clean of rock concretions, revealing a smooth surface that was drawn upon with sticks. Bear claw marks cover the walls, as do carbon torch swipes, suggesting that burning wood was scraped against the rock to rekindle flames.
Above a crack where water would have gurgled into the cave, horses are painted, majestic heads marked with flowing manes. Nearby, two big mammoths can be found and a bison with eight legs, who appears to have been depicted in a dynamic state. Palaeolithic painters would have used fire to look at the paintings, and this flickering light combined with the three-dimensional undulating form of the walls would have created the illusion of movement, like frames in an animated film. In his documentary about the Chauvet paintings, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), the film director Werner Herzog describes this as a form of proto-cinema, with these drawings dancing across the walls.
Elsewhere, striped rhinoceroses with large horns are depicted, as is a panther and a butterfly upon a rock pendant that hangs from the ceiling. Two now extinct cave lions are also represented. Outlined with a single stroke that is six feet in length, a smaller female rubs her flank against a larger male. This has been significant for archaeozoologists, who didn’t know whether or not these ancient lions had a mane: the cave painting shows us that they didn’t. Another group of lions tell the story of a male courting a female; she bares her teeth, raises her lips and growls in response to his advances. Horses whinny and rhinos fight, seemingly running towards one another to clash horns. Perhaps most remarkable is the partial representation of a human that engulfs another rock pendant. This Venus-like figure comprises a vulva-esque form, beneath which two legs extend, while above, a bison’s head makes her appear as a Minotaur.
For conservation reasons, and perhaps regretfully, access to the cave itself has been restricted even for experts, who wear sterile boots and touch nothing as they walk along a two-foot-wide path into the cavity. As such, the exact dimensions of the cave have been captured to produce a precise replica that can be physically entered by the general public—6000 negative photographs and scans captured the cave’s walls, floor, ceiling and stalactites forms. Opened as a museum in 2015, visitors can explore this reproduction of the cave and its drawings. Whatever your views on the authenticity of this experience—and there are many, both good and bad—it will enable the survival of these paintings for years to come, allowing successive generations to access the art of our ancestors, bringing the past into the future.