In the mountains of southern France, where humans habitually have hunted, loved and produced art, explorers have discovered a cave full of Stone Age paintings, so beautifully made and well-preserved that experts are calling it one of the archaeological finds of the century.
The enormous cavern, which was found on Dec. 18 in a gorge near the town of Vallon-Pontd’Arc in the Ardeche region, is studded with more than 300 vivid images of animals and human hands that experts believe were made some 20,000 years ago.
In this great parade of beasts appear woolly-haired rhinos, bears, mammoths, oxen and other images from the end of the Paleolithic era, creatures large and small and variously drawn in yellow ocher, charcoal and hematite.
The murals have surprised specialists because they also include a rare image of a red slouching hyena and the era’s first-ever recorded paintings of a panther and several owls.
Specialists say this ancient art gallery surpasses in size that of the famous caves of Lascaux, also in southern France, and Altamira, Spain, which are widely held to be Western Europe’s finest collection of Stone Age art.
Archaeologists said they are thrilled not only by the number and the quality of the images but also by the discovery that the great underground site, sealed by fallen debris, appears to have been left undisturbed for thousands of years. They see this as tantamount to finding a time capsule full of hidden treasures.
One remarkable find, they said, is the skull of a bear, placed on a large rock set in the middle of one gallery against a backdrop of bear paintings.
“Is this some kind of altar? Someone placed the skull there for a reason,” said Jean Clottes, France’s leading rock art specialist.
Many other skulls and bones of cave bears were found in the underground warren, along with other bones, flint knives, footprints and remains of fireplaces, all of which, archaeologists hope, will provide important clues to the questions: What was the purpose of these paintings? What did their makers have in mind?
“Here we have a virgin site, completely intact. It may well change our perception, our thinking about the purpose and the use of cave art,” said Clottes. In contrast, at all other Stone Age sites found in Europe, he said, the floor and many objects have been disturbed by explorers.
A measure of the importance France attaches to the find is that Minister of Culture Jacques Toubon himself chose to announce it Wednesday at a news conference in Paris in the company of France’s top archaeologists.
“This discovery is of exceptional value because of its size and variety and because it was found undisturbed,” Toubon said. “It is the only totally intact cave network from the Paleolithic era. It will help us to understand how human symbolism evolved.”
He added that the site would not be open to the public in the foreseeable future but has been placed under government protection and is accessible only to archaeologists. One expert said that until the climate inside the warren of caves has been stabilized, only three people may be inside at any one time.
The first inkling of a great unknown cave came Dec. 18 when two men and a woman were exploring in the gorges of Ardeche, an area known for its decorated ancient caves and shelters.
“At one point, we felt a draft coming out of the ground,” said JeanMarie Chauvet, a government guard of prehistoric sites and one of the three explorers. “For us, that’s a sign there is something else.”
He said they took much of that day clearing fallen debris until they could enter a narrow hole that led to a greater space.
They returned again Dec. 24. Christian Hillaire, an amateur explorer, said the team first crawled through the narrow tunnel they had cleared, which was seven yards long. “Then we saw the first red markings on the walls with our helmet lights. So we kept going.”
As the three lowered themselves on a rope, it turned out they were entering through the ceiling of a great cavern. “There we began to see human markings and drawings everywhere,” said Hillaire. “It was a great moment. We all shouted and yelled.”
On their next visit, the team brought plastic to cover the ground where they walked to protect evidence.
As the explorers advanced, they discovered a great cavern, consisting of four main halls connected to one another by smaller galleries. The first hall they entered had only red paintings while in another hall all the murals were drawn in black.