The Chauvet Cave was discovered in the Ardèche valley (in southern France) in December 1994 by three cave explorers, after removing the rumble of stones that blocked a passage.
The cave is extensive, about 400 meters long, with vast chambers. The floor of the cave is littered with archaeological and palaeontological remains, including the skulls and bones of cave bears, which hibernated there, along with the skulls of an ibex and two wolves. The cave bears also left innumerable scratches on the walls and footprints on the ground.
The two major parts of the cave were used in different ways by artists. In the first part, a majority of images are red, with few black or engraved ones. In the second part, the animals are mostly black, with far fewer engravings and red figures. Obvious concentrations of images occur in certain places. The most spectacular images are the Horse Panel and the Panel of Lions and Rhinoceroses.
The dominant animals throughout the cave are lions, mammoths, and rhinoceroses. From the archaeological record, it is clear that these animals were rarely hunted; the images are thus not simple depictions of daily life at the time they were made. Along with cave bears (which were far larger than grizzly bears), the lions, mammoths, and rhinos account for 63 percent of the identified animals, a huge percentage compared to later periods of cave art. Horses, bison, ibex, reindeer, red deer, aurochs, Megaceros deer, musk-oxen, panther, and owl are also represented. An exceptional image of the lower body of a woman was found associated with a bison figure. Many images of large red dots are, indeed, partial handprints made with the palm of the hand. Red hand stencils and complete handprints have also been discovered.
Thirty radiocarbon datings made in the cave have shown that it was frequented at two different periods. Most of the images were drawn during the first period, between 30,000 and 32,000 BP in radiocarbon years. Some people came back between 25,000 to 27,000 and left torch marks and charcoal on the ground. Some human footprints belonging to a child may date back to the second period.
Clottes, Jean. “Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000 B.C.).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chav/hd_chav.htm (October 2002)