13 Facts About the Chauvet Cave Paintings

A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings of animal figures on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Discovered by accident in 1994, the cave paintings adorning the walls of Chauvet Cave in France are among the oldest and most beautiful figurative art in human history. About 36,000 years ago, the ancient artists drew lifelike beasts that seem to gallop, crawl, and frolic through the cave’s chambers. In one stunning triptych, 50 drawings of horses, lions, and reindeer cavort across 49 feet of limestone wall. The cave paintings even impressed filmmaker Werner Herzog enough to make a documentary (available on Netflix). Here are a few more facts about the Chauvet Cave paintings.

1. The Chauvet Cave paintings were discovered by three local explorers.

It was December 18, 1994. French cavers Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire had spent the day exploring the Pont d’Arc caves in the Ardèche region in southern France. They came upon an array of fallen rocks and noticed a gentle woosh of air from beneath the rock pile. Prying aside the stones, they found an aperture and dropped down into a large chamber with a high ceiling that appeared to branch off into other chambers. Their headlamps illuminated several handprints and a red ochre painting of a mammoth on the wall of one chamber. At that moment, they knew they had stumbled onto a major archaeological discovery.

2. Chauvet Cave was formed by an underground river.

Replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings
A detail of the full-scale reproduction of frescos found at the cave of Pont-D'Arc, also known as the Chauvet Cave, on April 8, 2015 in Vallon Pont D'Arc. The frescos were reproduced by French graphic artist and researcher Gilles Tosello to replicate the Chauvet Cave, which is located in the Ardèche region of southern France.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Subterranean rivers flowing through the area's limestone hills created Chauvet Cave, along with hundreds of other gorges and caverns in the Ardèche. Chauvet Cave is about 1300 feet (roughly a quarter-mile) long with 14 chambers branching off the largest room, the Chamber of the Bear Hollows—the first one discovered by Chauvet, Brunel Deschamps, and Hillaire. This chamber, closest to the entrance, features no cave paintings; flooding is thought to have washed away any artwork. The most decorated vestibules are farthest from the entrance and include the Hillaire Chamber, Red Panels Gallery, Skull Chamber, the Megaloceros Gallery, and the End Chamber.

3. The Chauvet Cave painters were Aurignacians.

Aurignacians, the first anatomically modern humans in Europe, lived during the Upper Paleolithic, or Old Stone Age, between 46,000 and 26,000 years ago. (Aurignacian also refers to this time period.) Aurignacian culture is characterized by the first figurative drawings and carvings, the invention of a flaked stone tool called a burin used for engraving, bone and antler tools, jewelry, and the oldest-known musical instruments.

In addition to the Chauvet Cave paintings, Aurignacian animal and human figurines have been found in other parts of Europe. At the Hohle Fels cave in southwestern Germany, archaeologists discovered the oldest known Venus statuette, dating from 40,000 to 35,000 years ago, and some of the oldest known bone flutes from the same time period. In Southeast Asia, a cave in Borneo bears the oldest known figurative painting, created at least 40,000 years ago.

4. Ancient humans visited Chauvet Cave during two separate millennia.

A reproduction of a hand stencil found in Chauvet Cave
Picture taken on October 12, 2012 in Vallon-Pont-d'Arc of the facsimile of the Chauvet cave.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

According to paleontologist Michel-Alain Garcia in Chauvet Cave: The Art of Earliest Times, radiocarbon dating of organic materials in Chauvet Cave suggest people used the cave during two different time periods. In the first, about 36,500 years ago during the Aurignacian, artists drew the majority of the Chauvet Cave paintings. They brought wood into the cave and burned it to create light and charcoal for drawing. Then, for an unknown reason, the Aurignacians abandoned the cave for about five or six thousand years, and it was taken over by cave bears. In the second instance of human use, about 31,000 to 30,000 years ago in the Gravettian period, humans left behind footprints, scorch marks from torches, and charcoal, but no artwork.

5. Fourteen animal species are represented in the Chauvet Cave paintings.

The most common animals in the Chauvet Cave paintings are cave lions, mammoths, and woolly rhinoceroses; all coexisted with the Aurignacians in Europe, but are now extinct. Along with depictions of cave bears, the four species make up 65 percent of the species in the paintings. The other are bison, horses, reindeer, red deer, ibex, aurochs (an extinct wild ancestor of domesticated cattle), the extinct Megaloceros deer (also called the Irish elk or giant deer), musk ox, panthers, and an owl. The paintings are notable for depicting not just figurative representations of the animals, but actual scenes that reveal the animals’ real behavior—like two woolly rhinoceroses butting horns, and a pride of lions stalking a group of bison.

6. Non-animal themes also pop up in Chauvet Cave paintings.

Palm prints in red paint found in Chauvet Cave
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

In the middle chambers of Chauvet Cave, several walls and overhanging rocks are decorated with red dots made by human palms and stencils of human hands. In the farthest galleries of the cave, five triangular representations of a woman’s pubic area are scratched on to the walls, and one picture of a woman’s lower body similar in profile to Paleolithic Venus figurines is drawn on a stalactite-like rock pendant. Anthropologists are not sure what they’re meant to symbolize.

7. A prehistoric child’s footprints were discovered in Chauvet Cave.

A single track of footprints measuring 230 feet long was found in the soft clay floor of the cave’s Gallery of the Crosshatching. Researchers analyzed modern European feet that were estimated to be roughly equivalent to those of European Early Modern Humans and determined that the track was probably made by a young boy about 4.5 feet tall. Scientists were able to date the prints based on the marks left by a burning torch on the roof of the gallery. “The child regularly wiped his torch on [the vault] above his path. These charcoal marks, dated to 26,000 years ago, seem to have been placed contrary to the direction of progress on purpose, as if to mark the way back,” Garcia writes. Two bits of charcoal were retrieved from the substrate and dated to a period between 31,430 years and 25,440 years ago.

8. The child might have had a pet dog.

The adolescent boy’s footprints are near those of a large canid—possibly a wolf. When Garcia took a closer look, he noticed the length of the middle digit was shorter than a wolf’s, a trait more typical of a domesticated dog. But in the 1990s, when Garcia made the find, the oldest undisputed fossil evidence of a domesticated dog dated back only 14,200 years before present.

A 2017 study that built on previous research, however, compared genomes of three Neolithic dogs with those of more than 5000 canines, including modern wolves and dogs. The researchers concluded that dogs and wolves split genetically sometime between 41,500 and 36,900 years ago, and a second divergence of eastern and western dogs occurred between 23,900 and 17,500 years ago. That puts the window of domestication between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago—the same time as the Aurignacian child and his very good boy were walking through Chauvet Cave.

9. Chauvet cave provided shelter for bears.

Outline of a cave bear head in Chauvet Cave
A view taken on June 13, 2014 shows paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet cave, in Vallon Pont d'Arc.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

Larger than modern grizzlies, cave bears spent winters in Chauvet Cave for thousands of years before humans began painting in it. They left claw scratches on the walls and dozens of tracks and footprints in the floor. In the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, researchers have found more than 300 hollows (sleeping spots that bears wore into the cave floor) and dozens of bear tracks and paw prints, made after humans stopped visiting the cave. About 2500 cave bear bones and 170 skulls were scattered throughout the cave’s main chambers. When scientists first investigated the cave in the mid-1990s, they found a cave bear skull carefully placed on a large stone in the middle of a deep chamber, in a way that only humans could have done.

10. The cave also provided shelter for a lot of wolves.

The floor of the Brunel Chamber, directly south of the Chamber of the Bear Hollows, showed multiple wolf prints that indicated a large number of “fissipeds” (pad-footed carnivores) had trampled the ground. Bear prints were superimposed on the wolf prints, suggesting that the bears came in after the wolves.

Not only large carnivores occupied the cave—judging from the variety of bones, it was practically a prehistoric zoo. In addition to the wolf, ibex, and bear bones, prehistorian Jean Clottes reported finding those of foxes, martens (a kind of weasel), roe deer, horses, birds, rodents, bats, and reptiles. And, yes, he also found fossilized wolf poop, indicating the wolves probably went into the cave in search of carrion.

11. No one knows why the Chauvet Cave paintings were created.

Chauvet Cave paintings
A detail of the full-scale reproduction of frescos found at the cave of Pont-D'Arc also known as the Chauvet cave, on April 8, 2015 in Vallon Pont D'Arc. The frescos were reproduced by French graphic artist and researcher Gilles Tosello to replicate the Chauvet Cave, located in the Ardèche region of southern France.
Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

The purpose behind the Chauvet Cave paintings is a mystery, but some characteristics of the artwork may offer clues. Researchers have noted that the primary species depicted—cave bear, lion, mammoth, and rhinoceros—were not prey species that Aurignacians pursued for food, possibly suggesting that the paintings weren’t meant to ensure bountiful hunting.

A 2016 study hinted that the Chauvet Cave artists may have been recording contemporary events. Jean-Michel Geneste and colleagues proposed that a spray-like design in the Megaloceros Gallery was a faithful depiction of a volcanic eruption that occurred in the nearby Bas-Vivaris region between 40,000 and 30,000 years ago. If that is true, Chauvet Cave boasts the oldest known painting of volcanic activity, smoking the previous record holder—a 9000-year-old mural in central Turkey—by 28,000 years.

12. When Werner Herzog entered Chauvet Cave, he was overwhelmed.

Filmmaker Werner Herzog accompanied researchers into the depths of the cave system to make his 2010 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (available to stream on Netflix). Herzog’s grandfather was an archaeologist, and Herzog himself once earned money as a ball boy at a tennis court to buy a book about cave art. “Even though in a way I knew what was waiting for me because I had seen photos, I was in complete and overwhelming awe,” Herzog told The A.V. Club in 2011. “The mysterious origins of it—we don’t know why they were made, and why in complete darkness and not next to the entrance.”

13. You can visit a scale replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings.

The world-famous Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, not far from Pont d’Arc, were damaged by the exhalations of thousands of visitors after the cave was opened to the public in 1948. So, immediately after Chauvet Cave was discovered, scientists moved to protect the fragile paintings and closed it to the public; now, only scholars are allowed in during brief windows of time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see a simulation of the artwork up close. In 2015, a scale replica of the Chauvet Cave paintings, dubbed the Caverne du Pont d’Arc, opened near the site of the actual cave. Engineers and artists faithfully recreated not just the dazzling paintings, but also the temperature, dampness, murk, and funky smell of the original.

Explore Two of Pompeii’s Excavated Homes in This Virtual Tour

A photo of the Pompeii ruins from November 2019.
A photo of the Pompeii ruins from November 2019.
Ivan Romano/Getty Images

It’s been nearly 2000 years since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius decimated Pompeii in 79 C.E., and archaeologists are still uncovering secrets about life in the ancient Roman city. As Smithsonian reports, they’ve recently excavated two homes in Regio V, a 54-acre area just north of the Pompeii Archaeological Park—and you can see the findings for yourself in a virtual tour published by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities.

The 7.5-minute video comprises drone footage of the houses and surrounding ruins, along with commentary by park director Massimo Osanna that explains what exactly you’re looking at and what types of people once lived there. Osanna’s commentary is in Italian, but you can read the English translation here.

The homes, both modest private residences that probably housed middle-class families, border the Vicolo dei Balconi, or “Alley of the Balconies.” The first is fittingly named “House With the Garden” because excavators discovered that one of its larger rooms was, in fact, a garden. Excavators pinpointed the outlines of flowerbeds and even made casts of plant roots, which paleobotanists will use to try to identify what grew there. In addition to the garden and vibrant paintings that feature classic ancient deities like Venus, Adonis, and Hercules, “House With the Garden” also preserved the remains of its occupants: 11 victims, mostly women and children, who likely took shelter within the home while the men searched for a means of escape.

Across the street is “House of Orion,” named for two mosaics that depict the story of Orion, a huntsman in Greek mythology whom the gods transformed into the constellation that bears his name today.

“The owner of the house must have been greatly attracted to this myth, considering it features in two different rooms in which two different scenes of the myth are depicted,” Osanna says. “It is a small house which has proved to be an extraordinary treasure chest of art."

To see what Pompeian houses would’ve looked like before Mount Vesuvius had its fiery fit, check out this 3D reconstruction.

[h/t Smithsonian]

20 Surprising Facts About King Tutankhamun

The burial mask of Egyptian King Tutankhamun.
The burial mask of Egyptian King Tutankhamun.
Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images

If you can only name one Egyptian pharaoh, it’s likely King Tut. Born around 1343 BCE, Tutankhamun made history as the youngest known monarch to preside over the ancient Egyptian empire. But that wasn’t his only claim to fame. In life, King Tut made important political decisions; in death, he captivated the public’s fascination and ignited their interest in mummies.

The discovery of King Tut's pristine tomb in 1922 remains one of the most important moments in all of Egyptian archaeology. From his confusing lineage to his impact on pop culture, here’s what you need to know about King Tutankhamun.

1. King Tut’s parents were related.

Tutankhamun was likely inbred—something that wasn’t uncommon with royal families trying to maintain a “pure” bloodline throughout history. Around 2010, an analysis of DNA taken from the mummies of King Tut and his relatives revealed that the boy pharaoh’s parents had been brother and sister, but that discovery has since been disputed.

Tut’s father has been identified as the heretic Akhenaten, but the identity of his mother remains unknown. At least one archaeologist believes that Tut’s mother was actually Queen Nefertiti—Akhenaten's cousin, and one of his wives.

2. King Tut had an incestuous relationship of his own.

King Tut was married to a woman named Ankhesenamun, who was the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. That made her Tutankhamun’s half-sister—or his full sister, if the theory about Nefertiti being his mother is true.

King Tut fathered two daughters with his wife, but unfortunately, both children were stillborn. Their bodies were mummified and eventually interred in King Tut’s tomb with him. Ankhesenamun outlived Tutankhamun and possibly got married to the pharaoh Ay (Tut’s uncle) after Tut’s death.

3. King Tut became pharaoh at age 9.

As the grandson of the pharaoh Amenhotep II and the son of pharaoh Ankhesenamun, Tutankhamun was destined for the throne. He assumed his position as Egypt’s leader at the young age of 9, and ruled until his death 10 years later around 1324 BCE. It is believed that King Tut is the youngest pharaoh ever to rule over the ancient Egyptian empire. Because he was so young when he came into power, his uncle Ay was likely in charge during those early years.

4. King Tut reversed his father’s religious reforms.

King Tut didn’t need to do much to impress his subjects—his father, pharaoh Akhenaten, had been a disastrous ruler. Akhenaten changed the established religion to focus on the worship of one god, the sun deity Aten, which left him branded as a heretic. Akhenaten also moved the holy capital from Thebes to Amarna.

When Tut became pharaoh he undid his father’s changes and declared Thebes to be the religious center once again. This helped him earn the trust of his people during his brief reign.

5. King Tut changed his name.

Profile of a wooden statue of King Tutankhamun.
Profile of a wooden statue of King Tutankhamun.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

King Tut went by many names during his lifetime. He was born with the name Tutankhaten, which translates to “living image of Aten.” After he become pharaoh, he changed his name to Tutankhamun or “living image of Amun.” This change was a reflection of Tut’s devotion to the god Amun, whom his father had neglected in favor of the god Aten. Today, Tutankhamun is most commonly known as King Tut.

6. King Tut had health issues.

King Tut had a severe bone disease that left him disabled. He had a clubbed left foot, which made it hard for him to move around. In ancient art he is regularly depicted sitting down when engaging in physical activities like archery, whereas other pharaohs were always shown standing up in similar scenarios. It’s believed that Tut’s inbred lineage contributed to his physical issues. CT scans of his mummy showed that his left leg had been broken and infected, which may have contributed to his untimely death.

7. Experts used to suspect that King Tut had been assassinated.

King Tut’s mummy was discovered with a hole in its skull, leading some people to believe that the young pharaoh had been assassinated with a blow to the head. This theory has since been widely debunked by experts. It’s now suspected that the hole was either put there by embalmers when King Tut was being mummified or it was created when archaeologists first removed the mummy’s gold mask. It’s much more likely that the infection in his leg was the cause of his death.

8. A chariot accident may have contributed to King Tut’s death.

King Tutankhamun's burial chariot, which was discovered in the pharaoh's tomb.
King Tutankhamun's burial chariot, which was discovered in the pharaoh's tomb.
Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

If King Tut did indeed die from a broken leg, the question still remains of how he broke his leg in the first place. According to one theory, the teen king died in a horrible chariot accident, which is why one side of his body—including his leg—was found crushed. The chariots used by royalty in ancient Egypt were small and light, allowing them to reach high speeds. Although there’s no evidence that chariots were used for racing during this period, they were used during war and for hunting rides.

9. King Tut wasn’t history’s only young pharaoh.

King Tut was likely the youngest pharaoh to lead Egypt, but not my much. Cleopatra became co-regent with her younger brother (and husband) Ptolemy XIII in 51 BCE when he was just 10 years old. Looking beyond ancient Egypt, there are many young monarchs from history who shave years off Tut’s age record. China, Russia, England, Spain, and France are just a few countries that have crowned “rulers” when they were babies.

10. King Tut’s successors tried to erase him from history.

While King Tut did a lot to reverse his father’s unpopular reforms during his lifetime, none of it did much to protect Tut’s legacy in the long run. His successors did their best to remove his wife, Ankhesenamun, from history—and the memory of Tutankhamun along with her.

Tut was buried quickly and in a small tomb normally reserved for private citizens, not one of the grander tombs meant for pharaohs. Because his tomb was out of the way, it remained untouched for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1922. Now King Tut is the most famous Egyptian pharaoh of all time.

11. King Tut's tomb was robbed—twice.

Crates are carried out of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923.
Crates are carried out of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before King Tut’s tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, it was visited by grave robbers. The first break-in took place shortly after Tutankhamun was laid to rest. Following that initial incident, there was rubble blocking the burial chambers, but it didn't take long for a second set of intruders to tunnel their way in. Carter found the tomb in shambles with entryways blocked off to provide further protection to Tutankhamun.

12. King Tut had three coffins.

Inside King Tut’s stone sarcophagus were three coffins: The outermost pair were made of gilded wood and the inner coffin was crafted out of solid gold. Over the head and shoulders of the mummy was the ornate gold death mask that many people associate with Tutankhamun. The mummy was placed inside the Russian nesting doll-style coffins, and everything was put inside a large quartzite stone sarcophagus with a pink granite top.

13. Some people think King Tut’s tomb is cursed.

King Tut’s tomb has inspired many legends since it was discovered decades ago. Because many people associated with the site have subsequently met with misfortune, stories have spread about its supposed curse. Some of the victims of this so-called curse include George Jay Gould, a financier who got sick after visiting the tomb in 1923, and George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who died of blood poisoning after funding the dig. This so-called curse has been blamed for more than a dozen deaths.

14. King Tut was entombed with a meteorite dagger.

The tomb of Tutankhamun contained many extraordinary objects, one of which was a dagger carved from a meteorite. The dagger was found on the body of the mummy when he was discovered, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry revealed that the materials came from space. The iron in the blade contained 10.8 percent nickel and .58 percent cobalt. Such a high nickel percentage indicated that the iron came from a meteorite, not Earth.

15. There are no hidden rooms in King Tut’s tomb.

Archaeologists surrounding sarcophagus in King Tut's tomb.
Archaeologists surrounding sarcophagus in King Tut's tomb.
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images

Even after it was excavated, King Tut’s tomb continued to capture the imaginations of archaeologists. In 2015, a British archaeologist put forth a theory based on laser scans that a second room was hidden behind a wall of the tomb and waiting to be explored. He even suggested that Tutankhamun’s stepmother, Queen Nefertiti, might be entombed there. That idea was put to rest when a comprehensive ground-penetrating radar survey showed there were no hidden rooms or corridors adjacent to the tomb.

16. DIY repairs were made on King Tut’s burial mask.

After surviving 3000 years in a tomb in Egypt, King Tut’s iconic gold death mask was badly damaged when, around 2014, the mask’s braided beard broke off, and museum curators used epoxy glue to reattach it. This improvised solution may have ended up causing more lasting damage than the accident itself. Epoxy glue is hard to remove, and attempts to scrape off the adhesive resulted in permanent scratch marks on the artifact’s priceless gold face.

17. King Tut was buried with an ancient board game.

The ancient board game senet.
The ancient board game senet.
Dmitry Denisenkov via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the world’s oldest board games was discovered inside King Tut’s tomb. Senet, or “passing,” had been played in Egypt for 1800 years prior to Tutankhamun’s death. It was played by people of all class levels, and though the exact rules have been lost to time, it’s believed to have something to do with life and death. It even may have been an early version of backgammon.

18. King Tut rocked pop culture.

When his tomb was discovered in the early 20th century, King Tut had a massive impact on pop culture. The Egyptian aesthetic infiltrated the 1920s, appearing in fashion, home design, and architecture. Americans especially were so fascinated by King Tut that president Herbert Hoover even went so far as to name his dog after the young monarch. Tut’s impact was felt for decades after his discovery. The historical figure has been depicted countless times in movies, songs, and television shows.

19. King Tut’s tomb recently received a makeover.

English Egyptologist Howard Carter examines the golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1923.
English Egyptologist Howard Carter examines the golden sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1923.
Harry Burton/Apic/Getty Images

After years of traffic from tourists, King Tut’s tomb closed to visitors in 2009 to undergo a long conservation project. At the beginning of 2019, the archaeological site finally reopened to the public. Today, the attraction features an air filtration and ventilation system, restored wall paintings, a viewing platform, and new barriers to protect precious artifacts from viewers. King Tut’s tomb is one of the most popular destinations for tourists visiting Egypt.

20. We may finally know what King Tut really looked like.

By conducting a virtual autopsy of his mummy with CT scan data, scientists were able to build a 3D model of what King Tut may have looked like when he was alive 3000 years ago. The computer-generated image looks much different than the striking face depicted on Tut’s iconic gold mask. Rather than the god-like figure that’s been shown countless times in pop culture, Tutankhamun was a frail, ordinary teenager in reality.

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