UNESCO World Heritage Status Awarded to France’s Chauvet-Pont Cave Art

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Chauvet cave art. Woolly Rhinoceros

World Heritage Status has been awarded to Chauvet cave art. This is a depiction of a Woolly Rhinoceros. Image by Inocybe

UNESCO has designated its oldest site of cultural heritage yet, at its 38th meeting, which was held in Dohar from June 15-25, 2014.

Decorated cave of Pont d’Arc, known as Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, Ardèche,’ France deserves World Heritage status because it is covered in pictures of animals, many now extinct, along with some more primitive negative and positive hand paintings typical of very early humans in Europe.

Chauvet is the name of one of the cave explorers who discovered the more than 30,000 years old cave paintings in the cave, whose entrance 25 metres below the surface had been obscured by a rock fall for probably 23,000 years, experts believe.

Chauvet’s Prehistoric Cultural Heritage

UNESCO has cited two of its criteria to designate these caves suitable for protection and conservation under its world heritage list scheme.

Criteria (i) judges these cave paintings to “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius.

Criteria (iii) states that the images bear “a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.

This makes the paintings significant in a human cultural tradition, and positions them as works of art from an extinct civilization.

Controversial Dating Research

The designation is somewhat controversial in that very little research has been undertaken to obtain a correct dating for these 1,000 pictures drawn or carved on the walls of the Grotte Chauvet. Carbon dating efforts made in the early 1990s, soon after the cave was discovered, suggesting an origin of 30,000-32,000 years ago, remain the subject of controversy.

Chauvet Pont d’Arc: Sophisticated Art Style

In 2012 Decoded Science spoke to a world expert on the dating of early cave art, Dr. Paul Pettitt, now Professor of Archaeology at Durham University, U.K. –  Professor Pettitt explained the difficulty of dating ancient pigments at that time.

Professor Pettitt has declared publically that he believes the Chauvet cave paintings are stylistically rather later than any dating evidence has put them. He has been involved in using other research methods which date certain cave paintings to be by Neanderthals, and therefore earlier than the Chauvet ones by several millennia.

Other studies of artistic skill manifested in prehistoric cave paintings suggest that a sophisticated knowledge of the actual working of animal bodies led to more accurate depictions of horses and cattle, for instance, than more recent artists demonstrate.

Use of Bear DNA to Date Cave Art

bear's head outline

This is an example of a cave bear, depicted on Chauvet cave wall. Image screen shot from The Dawn of Art video, by T.A. McMichael.

The only dating evidence for Grotte Chauvet-Pont d’Arc is in fact for when the caves were inhabited by (now extinct) cave bears. Researchers extracted DNA from bear bones found in the cave, which has offered quite a wide date range for when the cave was occupied by the animals; between 37,000 and 29,000 years ago.

Nonetheless French experts claim that the style of bear’s head drawn on the cave walls is consistent with genetic specificity discovered by the research.

World Heritage Status Protection for Chauvet Caves

World Heritage designation should shield the caves from the damage caused by human presence.

At present the cave hosts about 200 researchers per year. Its depictions of mammoths, aurochs, woolly rhinos and lions and bears have excited great public interest, especially since Werner-Herzog released a movie featuring the paintings.

Because the cave was sealed for so long the pigments remain very clear and the art works are, as yet, undamaged by the sort of human-introduced bacterial activity that damaged the famous Lascaux caves, discovered 50 years earlier.

Cave Wall Paintings: Preservation for Future Generations

Now visitors to Lascaux must view replicas of the cave walls and their paintings, and this is what will happen at Chauvet as well. To preserve the pristine Chauvet originals for further study, a full size replica is being constructed on the surface nearby, to be opened in April, 2015.

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