The Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave is a cave in the Ardèche department of southern France that contains the earliest known cave paintings, as well as other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life. It is located near the commune of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc on a limestone cliff above the former bed of the Ardèche River. Discovered on December 18th, 1994, it is considered one of the most significant prehistoric art sites.
The cave was first explored by a group of three speleologists: Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet, for whom it was named. Chauvet 1996 has a detailed account of the discovery. On top of the paintings and other human evidence they also discovered fossilized remains, prints, and markings from a variety of animals, some of which are now extinct. Further study by French archaeologist Jean Clottes has revealed much about the site, though the dating has been the matter of some dispute.
The cave is situated above the previous course of the Ardèche River before the Pont d'Arc opened up. The gorges of the Ardèche region are the site of numerous caves, many of them having some geological or archaeological importance. The Chauvet Cave is uncharacteristically large and the quality, quantity, and condition of the artwork found on its walls have been called spectacular.
Based on radiocarbon dating, the cave appears to have been used by humans during two distinct periods: the Aurignacian and the Gravettian. Most of the artwork dates to the earlier, Aurignacian, era (30,000 to 32,000 years ago). The later Gravettian occupation, which occurred 25,000 to 27,000 years ago, left little but a child's footprints, the charred remains of ancient hearths and carbon smoke stains from torches that lit the caves. After the child's visit to the cave, evidence suggests that due to a landslide which covered its historical entrance, the cave had been untouched until it was discovered in 1994. The footprints may be the oldest human footprints that can be dated accurately.
The soft, clay-like floor of the cave retains the paw prints of cave bears along with large, rounded, depressions that are believed to be the "nests" where the bears slept. Fossilized bones are abundant and include the skulls of cave bears and the horned skull of an ibex.
Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, depicting at least 13 different species, including some rarely or never found in other ice age paintings. Rather than depicting only the familiar herbivores that predominate in Paleolithic cave art, i.e. horses, cattle, mammoths, etc., the walls of the Chauvet Cave feature many predatory animals, e.g., cave lions, panthers, bears, and cave hyenas.
Typical of most cave art, there are no paintings of complete human figures, although there is one partial "Venus" figure composed of a vulva attached to an incomplete pair of legs. Above the Venus and in contact with it is a bison head, which has led some to describe the composite drawing as a Minotaur. There are a few panels of red ochre hand prints and hand stencils made by spitting pigment over hands pressed against the cave surface. Abstract markings-lines and dots-are found throughout the cave. There are also two unidentifiable images that have a vaguely butterfly shape to them. This combination of subjects has led experts in prehistoric art and cultures to believe that there was likely a ritual, shamanic, or magical aspect to these paintings.