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Talent of prehistoric artists unearthed on cave walls, says archeologist

CAVE ART: Professor Jean Clottes of France led the archaeological team that appraised the Chauvet Cave, considered the world's oldest rock art. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

The cave walls that contain the world’s oldest rock art reveal both the talent and the mindset of the prehistoric artists who painted them, according to a renowned visiting archaeologist and expert.

Professor Jean Clottes of France, the archaeologist who revealed the true value of the paintings inside the Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche Valley of southern France, spoke about his incredible discovery before an estimated 400 people in the Academic Resource Centre lecture hall at the University of Toronto Scarborough on Nov. 27.

The lecture was titled “The Original Masterpiece.” Clottes led the research team that appraised and uncovered the significance of the Chauvet Cave following its discovery in 1994. This series of caves was uncovered by three explorers who removed a rumble of stones and uncovered an earth-shattering find.

Inside the extensive cave they found more than 400 spectacular Paleolithic images painted on the walls, featuring cave bears, horses, mammoths, lions, and rhinoceroses. The cave also contained the fossilized remains of many animals, including those that are now extinct, and provides an astonishing archaeological record and window into the past.

“Forty-thousand years ago or more, cave bears frequently used the Chauvet Cave to hibernate in it,” Clottes told the audience. “Then, between 30,000 and 32,000 years ago, some people – including a very great artist – went into the cave for their ceremonies, and completed most of the paintings.”

The Chauvet Cave, with its extensive interior art, soon came to be regarded as one of the most significant prehistoric art sites in the world, dating back to the Ice Age. It is renowned for both the quality of its prehistoric artwork and the age of its remains, estimated at 35,000 years old.

Hundreds of paintings have been catalogued, depicting at least 13 different species, including those rarely or never found before. Radiocarbon dating shows that the cave was frequented by humans during two different periods, between 30,000 to 32,000 Before Common Era (BCE), and between 25,000 to 27,000 BCE. Clottes said that radiocarbon dating provides extremely conservative estimates, and he believes it is more accurate to add another 5,000 years prior to the radiocarbon dates to determine the true age of the paintings.

Clottes said people did not live in the cave, but instead visited in order to create their art. The cave may also have held spiritual meaning for the people who entered, he said. Using rudimentary minerals, pigments and charcoals to create the drawings, the artist (or artists) nevertheless demonstrated a talent for eye and perspective, Clottes told the audience. The level of sophistication of the cave painting changes our concept of the evolution of art, he said. For instance, the artists must have had a keen eye for shape and proportion – as well as the ability to recall and render them – given that the Chauvet Cave contains images of such animals as lions and rhinoceroses, which were never in the cave.

“We are extremely fortunate to have had Dr. Jean Clottes from France with us to speak about the significance of these cave paintings dating back to the Ice Age,” said Prof. Ian Brown, who helped to facilitate the lecture. “Dr. Clottes is an incredibly dynamic and engaging speaker, and he has held the post of France’s ‘General Inspector for Archaeology’ and headed the research team that appraised the Chauvet Cave.”

Clottes was speaking at the 32nd Watts Lecture held at the University of Toronto Scarborough. The Annual Watts Lecture is named in memory of the late F.B. Watts, a distinguished geography professor at U of T Scarborough. The series began in 1970 and is aimed at drawing a broad audience on a topic of wide appeal. Previous Watts lecturers include: Lester B. Pearson, David Suzuki, Ed Mirvish, Mark Tewkesbury, and many more.

This event was generously supported by TD Meloche Monnex, which has been a supporter of the Watts Lectures for many years.

by Mary Ann Gratton

© University of Toronto Scarborough