Can an Aurignacian age for the Chauvet cave paintings be maintained?

The cave of Chauvet (Southeastern France) became instantly famous after its discovery in 1994, now exactly 20 years ago. 425 painted and engraved figures were found in the cave, with a wide variety of themes and all with an excellent state of preservation. It became a key site for recent studies of parietal art, especially also because of its claimed very early age (36,000 cal BP).

A recent study, published in L’Anthropologie, places the Chauvet cave art in its regional, cultural, thematic and wider chronological framework, and assigns the majority of the painting to the Gravettian and Solutrean (26,000–18,000), casting doubts over its original assignment to the Aurignacian.

The paper gives an extensive overview of the archaeological context of the cave, with a focus on the painted motifs and its links to other cave sites in the Franco-Cantabrian region. It is stressed how the cave wasn’t painted in one go by one person, but the art accumulated over a period of time. The majority of the motifs seem to belong to an evolved phase of parietal art, different from the Aurignacian art known from blocks and walls elsewhere in France and Spain.

Next, the difficulties of directly dating the paintings are discussed, including a critique on the pre-treatment of the AMS dating samples. Overall, several series of dates were obtained, by various techniques, giving results varying between 21.000 and 31.000BP. The archaeological evidence indicates a dense Middle Upper Palaeolithic (26,000–18,000) occupation compared to a far less dense Magdalenian occupation.

Bringing all these lines of evidence together, the authors conclude that the very early age of Chauvet Cave cannot be retained based on the current evidence. Overall, it is a complicated discussion and this isn’t the first paper to criticize the old Chauvet dates. However, new research, new dates and improved dating methods are needed to assess if any of the Chauvet art can be securely assigned to the Aurignacian.

Note that there is a great website that allows you to explore the Chauvet Cave online and they are currently building a replica and visitor centre which will open late 2014.

Full reference: Combier, J. and Jouve, G. 2014. Nouvelles recherches sur l’identité culturelle et stylistique de la grotte Chauvet et sur sa datation par la méthode du 14C. L’Anthropologie.http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.anthro.2013.12.001

Chauvet Cave Art (Source: Newyorker.com)

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