Transforming Prehistory

35,000 years ago, their families found the bear cave. By then, the bears were bones, but the Aurignacians didn’t move in – they preferred to build tents along the cliff face, where the sun would warm the rock throughout the day, leaving enough heat to help them through the icy nights. Yet the caverns cast a spell on them as they explored its otherworldly limestone angles; they moved the bear skulls in precise and reverent ways, and then – crushing rocks into pigments and claiming charcoal from their fires, they set to work.

About 6,000 years later, others came through. They bore torches to admire the tableaux left by the first families. The trompe l’oeil bison appeared to charge towards them from the gloom. The four-times-painted horse’s head flickered with the flames, magically alive. Children visited. Their little footprints remain.

Then a rockslide buried the cave mouth for 29,000 years. Glaciers melted; tectonic plates shifted; volcanoes rose and fell. Families stopped hunting horses, started farming. Weapons were forged, then carriages, then trains. Somewhere along the line, the words “spelunking” and “paleontology” were coined. In the total darkness, the shapes waited, ageless.

Chauvet Cavern was rediscovered in 1994 and immediately sealed up. Archeologists had learned lessons from other nearby caves – the paintings in the Lascaux caves, for example, which deteriorated rapidly following their discovery in 1940. Our breath and camera flashes are toxic. But the French government commissioned a huge recreation of the Chauvet caves – a scale duplicate built near the original site, designed for visitors.

The interpretive site is in the low mountains of Ardèche in southern France. The nearest village is Vallon Pont D’Arc, a tourist mecca in the summertime owing to the nearby gorge, whose river offers picturesque canoe trips. But in January, Vallon Pont D’Arc might as well be underneath a glacier. Nothing is open, and only one daily coach trip links the town to Montélimar’s train station. Worse, no shuttles run from the town up to the cave. For a Canadian family who trekked halfway around the world but are too stubborn to rent a car in France, it is a mammoth-sized challenge. I was starting to fear we’d have to reach the caves the same way as the original Aurignacians did: migration.

Our B&B hostess came to our rescue, chauffeuring us up and down the mountain and later helping us to hunter-gather pizza in the sleepy town. And so, yet another family stood on the threshold of the ancient, sacred cave – or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

Guided tours pass through ultramodern doors set into an isometric stone structure resembling a postmodern mountainside. Within, the lighting and temperature are constant; the walls glisten but do not drip like genuine limestone; metal walkways zigzag over the sloped, pit-laden floor. The art starts simple: red circles, silhouettes of hands, eventually a few snow leopards, their spots more prominent than their sleek shapes. The deeper you descend, the more intricate and sophisticated the artwork becomes, as if the artists were teaching themselves as they went. An owl, striped out in clay, perches overhead, pretty much where you’d expect to see an owl. An oryx rises hornless up to a forked crack in the cave wall – its horns were there all along. A male and female lion initiate a mating dance on either side of a natural crevice. Bison bear odd, repeated finger-marks that look like mistakes, but are actually wounds – claw marks. This is not a petrified natural history display. These creatures have stories to tell.

The last two chambers are jaw-dropping. In frenzied bouts of creativity that may have taken days or generations, every available surface is covered – stampedes and cavalcades of deer, horses, mammoths, rhinos, oryx, ox, and bull. No bears, bizarrely, and apart from the owl, no winged animals nor rodents nor vermin. And no humans whatsoever. The painters painted what mattered in their world. They saw themselves as the mice and bugs – tiny, fragile, inconsequential when contrasted with the soaring prehistoric beasts that trampled the tundra.

Children prefer friendly, anthropomorphized animals, but these cave paintings offer no such camaraderie. P isn’t scared of them, just uninterested. She struggles with her coat and the adult-sized audioguide headset. I simultaneously try to explain things and shush her. 20 minutes into the 50-minute tour, she’s had enough, but there is nowhere to escape. We get fed up – I, with her incapacity to find the sacred, and she with my dogged fixation on a bunch of unmoving scrawls. “But they do move,” I insist – but the installed floodlights in the replica cave are not like torches; they don’t conjure magic; the four-headed horse does not dance for us.

Eventually, commendably, P finds something to like. While I look up at the walls, she fixates downwards on the artificial bear skulls. “I study bones every Thursday,” She says casually, “I have an invisible basket of animal bones in my bedroom.” Creepy, I think, but I’d rather hear an imaginative yarn than a litany of complaints. We wrap up the tour and then spend another four hours exploring the interpretive site. They have a museum and a contemporary/primitive art gallery, but mostly P likes the maze of forested paths. She has been leading me through a fantasy battlefield ever since we left Lille three days ago; now finally, her authentic surroundings reflect her imagination.

In the gift shop, I buy a four-horse-head mousepad, and P buys a View-Master-style slideshow box, so we can study the cave art in comfort. I leave disheartened that all the mundane distractions of parenthood prevented me from feeling any kind of spiritual connection to the site. I’m also convinced that P learned nothing there, but two nights later she proves me wrong. At a restaurant, both of us over-tired as always, we await her plain spaghetti, and I crankily instruct her to draw something from the caves in her sketchbook.

Ten minutes later, she shows me an owl. It’s green and yellow, with a blue smiley face. All over its body, she has drawn little arrows, curving back and forth. And up in one corner of the page: a tiny red forked symbol – her version of fire.

I stare at her, impressed. I know what the arrows mean, and why the flame is there. She sees my expression and grins, knowing I’ve figured it out. Across the table, and across the gap of 35,000 years, without the need for words or gestures, we commune with the anonymous, insignificant, immortal artists of Chauvet. Their paintings have begun to move once more.

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