Infographics Part I: Discovery of the Chauvet Cave

October 3, 2016  |   | 

We’ve been embellishing our posts with infographics since we started this blog, but we’ve never actually talked about infographics as a medium. Because of their popularity, it’s easy to think that infographics are modern-day inventions. Here, we’ll share the story of the first infographics which were painted on cave walls more than 30,000 years ago.

Although digital marketing didn’t exist 30,000 years ago, or even paper and ink, infographics did. The image here shows an example: A cave painting from the Chauvet Cave in southern France. Its remarkable story is the subject of this post.

First discovered in December 1994, when three weekend cavers exploring the pine-forested hills of the Ardèche Gorge in southern France followed a cold air current to a pile of rocks in front of a narrow aperture in a limestone cliff, the Chauvet Cave displays a series of Paleolithic cave paintings dating back to the Ice Age.

After tunneling their way through the cliff wall, using hammers and awls to chip away the rocks and stalactites that blocked them, the three speleologists, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire, descended into a world frozen in time.

As described by Joshua Hammer in the Smithsonian Magazine, “Its main entrance blocked off by a massive rock slide 29,000 years ago, Brunel, the first to wedge through the passage, glimpsed surreal crystalline deposits that had built up for millennia, then stopped before a pair of blurry red lines drawn on the wall to her right. ‘They have been here,’ she shouted to her awe-struck companions.”

The Ice Age and the Neanderthals

Because of their sophistication, it was first presumed that these cave paintings were created later in history, however, as results from Carbon 14 dating and genetic research began to emerge, many entrenched and pre-existing conceptions were turned upside down. The art of the Chaveut Cave, some of it brilliant even by today’s standards, represents a turning point in human history. The development of “symbolic life” represented by these cave paintings has been dubbed “the mind’s big bang.”

The story begins with one of the most controversial theories about the Ice Age: Neanderthals and humans interbred. According to The Genographic Project of the National Geographic, “The first opportunity for Neanderthal-human interbreeding probably occurred about 60,000 years ago, after modern humans had left Africa but before they had made significant inroads into Europe.”

This discovery is only recent and remains controversial. The Genographic Project indicates that in 2010, “a team of scientists comparing a rough draft of the Neanderthal genome with that of modern humans concluded that most humans have 1 to 4 percent Neanderthal DNA.”

It is possible that genetic similarities shared between Neanderthals and modern humans could also be due to a recent common ancestor, however, current thinking is that, except for those of us whose descent comes from purely African origins, we have Neanderthal genes in our blood.

Who Discovered the Chaveut Cave

Who should have bragging rights to the cave’s discovery? This bruising debate continues through today.

According to Hammer, although the discovery is marked in December 1994, the story of the Chaveut Cave actually began in the spring of that year when Michel Rosa, a veteran spelunker and friend of Jean-Marie Chauvet, detected air seeping from stones in the limestone cliffs. Known to friends as Baba, it was Rosa who suggested the airflow was coming from a cave hidden behind the rocks. He tried to climb into the hole, only to give up after reaching a stalactite he couldn’t move by hand. The aperture became known among spelunkers as Le Trou de Baba, or Baba’s Hole.

Six months later, Chaveut returned with Brunel and Hillaire, to explore the hole in the craggy limestone and discovered the magnificent cave paintings. Chaveut claims that Rosa lost interest and moved on to explore other caves. Others say that Rosa had always intended on returning, however, Chaveut cheated him of the chance by exploring the cave unannounced. Rosa remains obscure, Chaveut is now famous, and the controversy may never be resolved.

How the Chaveut Cave Was Researched

Hammer describes what happened right after the discovery, “A few days after Christmas in 1994, Jean Clottes, a pre-eminent scholar of rock art and then an archaeology official in the French Ministry of Culture, received a call from a conservator, asking Clottes to rush to the Ardèche Gorge to verify a find. ‘I had my family coming; I asked whether I could do it after the New Year,’ Clottes recalls one day at his home in Foix, in the Pyrenees south of Toulouse. ‘He said, ‘No, you’ve got to come right away. It looks like a big discovery. They say there are hundreds of images, lots of lions and rhinos.’”

Very few ancient images of lions and rhinoceroses had appeared anywhere in rock paintings.  Clottes rushed to the site. After six hours spent viewing the cave for the very first time, Clottes emerged and said it was “one of the great discoveries of the 20th century.”

Since 1994, teams of paleontologists, geologists and art historians have mapped every square inch of Chaveut Cave with advanced 3-D technology, according to Hammer. They counted the bones of cave bears, inventoried animal images, documented the pigments used, identified the tools the cave artists employed, and identified nine species of carnivores and five species of ungulates. They even used geological analysis and a laser-based remote sensing technology to visualize the collapse of limestone slabs that sealed access to the cave for 30,000 years.

The First Infographics

According to the Bradshaw Foundation, “One other factor intrigued prehistorians around the world eagerly awaiting news from the research team; the Chauvet Cave and its Paleolithic paintings were more or less perfectly preserved.” Just as it revolutionized our understanding of early humans, the Chaveut Cave revolutionized our understanding of early art.

These perfectly preserved paintings, the first infographics of humankind, used artistic techniques and realistic representation that were never before seen. Representing the vitality of wild horses and head-butting woolly rhinoceroses, the artwork incorporated features on the cave walls, such as knobs and recesses, to bring three-dimensional qualities and movement to the paintings.

The cave painting pictured here, along with the other paintings in the cave, was executed artfully and skillfully. When the fact that these cave paintings dated deep within prehistory became evident, it forced us to abandon the prevailing view of the time that early art was naive art.

Previous interpretations of cave paintings concluded that the ancient images were painted of animals that the painters hoped to kill in their hunting expeditions, as part of a shamanistic ritual designed to bring fortune to the hunters. The artwork in Chaveut Cave upended this belief with painterly images of lions, bears, mammoths and rhinoceroses – animals that were instead the hunters who hunted humans.

The Early Inhabitants of the Chaveut Cave

The people who painted in the Chaveut Cave were Cro-Magnons, the first humans to arrive in Western Europe. First discovered in 1868, Cro-Magnons demonstrated traits unique to modern humans, including a tall, rounded skull with a near vertical forehead. Cro-Magnons led a physically tough life, suffering both strange ailments and traumatic injuries, however their lifestyle was one of support and care for each other which allowed them to live for a long time.

Chaveut, Brunel and Hillaire also discovered fossilized remains, prints and markings from a variety of animals living during the Ice Age, some of which are now extinct. These animals alternated inhabitance of the cave with the Cro-Magnons, though evidence doesn’t draw the conclusion that the two were ever in the cave at the same time.

In Dreamy Conclusion

At the time of the discovery, Chaveut was 42 years old and had devoted nearly every weekend of the past 30 years to exploring caves searching for some hint of a link to the past. According to Scott Kraft, who first wrote of the discovery of the Chaveut Cave in February 1995, Chauvet remembered distinctly, “I kept thinking, ‘We’re dreaming. We’re dreaming.’”

In viewing the remarkable artwork of the Chaveut Cave, I felt much like Chaveut – as though I were dreaming. I am struck by the extraordinary quality of the artwork and have to keep reminding myself that these paintings are more than 30,000 years old. Did I just say that? Deep breath. I’ll say it again: The Chaveut Cave paintings are more than 30,000 years old.

Was the art of the Chaveut Cave created to tell a story or merely for the pleasure of displaying beautiful images? Given the subject matter, it seems that some story was being told, albeit exactly what story that is we don’t know. However, the images are also both frightening and beautiful – the kind of beauty that only comes when the artist gains profoundly intense sensations, knowledge and emotions from its creation.

You can now visit a replica of the Chauvet Cave. Although its football field length doesn’t quite rival the four football fields of the actual Chauvet Cave, this replica was reconstructed over a 10-year period and provides a startling vision of the original cave giving its viewers the opportunity to see the paintings of the Chauvet Cave in the closest manner possible to their original environment.


Because this article was heavily researched, I want you to have more information about my references than just the typical link embedded in the story.

First, this article grew out of my fascination with an article by Joshua Hammer, “Finally, the Beauty of France’s Chauvet Cave Makes its Grand Public Debut,” which appeared in the Smithsonian Magazine in April 2015.

Scott Kraft’s story for the Los Angeles Times, written 20 years earlier in 1995, sheds light on the extraordinary qualities of the Chaveut Cave which were not fully understood at the time. Later, Jean Clottes wrote about the discovery in “Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000 B.C.)” in the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, for New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2002.

Additional resources for information about the Chaveut Cave included the Bradshaw Foundation and the New World Encylopedia. Information about the Ice Age came from the History channel, about Neanderthals from The Genographic Project of the National Geographic, about Cro-Magnons from the Smithsonian National Museum of National History, and information about cave art came from PBS.

Here is one of the most fascinating articles: An account of the original discovery written by the discoverers: Chaveut, Brunel and Hillaire.

Finally, I want to give credit where credit is due. Although I ended up not quoting this post here, this series about infographics, beginning with the Chaveut Cave, was originally inspired by a short, simple post from Shift Communications, a communications firm specializing in data-driven PR, called “Infographics Part I: The Rise and the Future.”

I am also compelled to include the following for those of you who love Twitter as much as I do (and which was repeatedly plunked into my file every time I cut and pasted a quote from the article in the Smithsonian Magazine), “Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter.”

Stay tuned –this series continues as we continue our walk through the history of infographics!

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  • Janeth Berrettini says:

    Thanks for your great post, it brings me new sources. I’m working in theory about the origin of the paintings in Chauvet Cave, analyzing the images from the art field.

  • Dear Elizabeth Krecker. Thank you your ininteresting article. It providef me info cpnconcerning the Paleolithic hunter/ gatherers society. You may be interested in my views no this subject published on my my webside (look below). Soon I will publishe there a felieton investigating the subject entitled Homo Sapience

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