Secrets of the Cave's Art

Standing before the hanging rock deep inside the damp cave, archeologist Yanik Le Guillou had a brainstorm: he would mount the digital camera on a 10-foot-long pole, maneuver it around and past the rock, turn the whole contraption just so, and... snap! capture on film whatever was hidden on the wall behind. On the first try, the scientists cut off the head of what looked like a painting of a bison. On the second try they cut off its feet. Finally they captured the whole animal--it was now looking more like a musk ox or a rhinoceros without horns--and the next day bagged even bigger quarry: painted next to the beast were a lion and a mammoth, powerful animals that are almost as rare in Paleolithic cave art as they are on the streets of Paris. It was like peering into the inner sanctum of an art gallery where the dealer kept the best works for his best customers. And although the Grotte Chauvet, in southeast France, was no gathering spot for Stone Agers drinking white wine and nibbling canapes, it came close: for thousands of years, archeologists now think, people returned to the grotto again and again on what seems to have been a spiritual pilgrimage.

The Grotte Chauvet is one of hundreds of natural caverns cut into the pale limestone cliffs that form the Ardeche Gorge. But it is unique. Its stone etchings and 416 paintings--a dozen more were discovered in the 15-day expedition that began last week--are, at 32,000 years, the oldest cave art known to science. The find consists of mural after mural of bold lions, leaping horses, pensive owls and charging rhinoceroses that together make up a veritable Louvre of Paleolithic art. Although Jean-Marie Chauvet and friends stumbled upon the cave in 1994, for years exploration had been blocked by lawsuits over who owned the rights to the grotto. Finally, archeologist Jean Clottes, a science adviser to France's Ministry of Culture, won permission to lead a team into the cave in 1998. Last week he and a dozen colleagues returned, seeking clues to the social structure, mind-sets and spiritual beliefs of the ancient artists.

They certainly left behind enough clues. A string of three chambers, 1,700 feet long, as well as one connecting gallery and three vestibules, are all covered with masterworks breathtaking in their use of perspective (as in overlapping mammoths) and shading, techniques that were supposedly not invented until millenniums later. And eons before Seurat got the idea, Stone Age artists had invented pointillism: one animal, probably a bison, is composed of nothing but red dots. Most striking, however, is that the artists had a thing for rhinos, lions, cave bears and mammoths. In contrast, most cave art depicts hunted animals. "Out of these people's whole bestiary, the artists chose predatory, dangerous animals," says archeologist Margaret Conkey of the University of Califor-nia, Berkeley. By painting species that virtually never wound up on the Paleolithic menu but which "symbolized danger, strength and power," says Clottes, the artists may have been attempting "to capture the essence of" the animals.

Like bemused gallery goers, Clottes's team spends long hours staring at a painting and asking, what does it mean? One clue comes from how the images are integrated into the walls. In the "Goldilocks" chamber, the missing hindquarters of a cave bear drawn in red ocher seem to lie within rather than on the rock. "The bear seems to come out of the wall," says Clottes. And last week Clottes's team discovered two painted ibexes in the same chamber. The horns of one are actually cracks in the wall which the artist scraped and enlarged. "To these people's way of thinking, those animal spirits were in the walls," says Clottes. Painting them, the artists may have believed, allowed the power within to seep into the real world.

Other hints of the cave's spiritual role include engravings of two large pubic triangles--symbols of fertility?--and a creature with human legs but the head and torso of a bison, suggesting that people hoped to incorporate within themselves some of the animals' power. The cave bear in particular may have had special meaning. The presence of 55 ancient bear skulls, including one carefully placed on a fallen rock as if on an altar, suggests a cult of the cave bear. And that may explain why the cave artists chose Chauvet: dozens of hollows in the floor indicate that the enormous bears hibernated there. People returned time and again to view the works. On the 30-foot-long "panel of the horses," the charcoal marks of torches being knocked against the wall were made after the paintings, says Conkey: the marks are superimposed on the mineral sheen that covers the figures. If painting was the first step in a spiritual quest, perhaps, then paying homage to the works was the second.

Doing cave archeology still means roughing it. Base camp is a 25-foot-deep cave strewn with clothes, equipment and baguettes. But since the discovery of the Lascaux painted caves in 1940, the work has gone high-tech. Clottes's team is photographing the paintings and etchings with a regular 35-mm, a digital camera and an infrared camera, which picks up the red-ocher paint better than standard optical devices. Back at the research base in the valley, the team scans or downloads the photos into computers, which can brighten the colors, pump up the contrast or manipulate the image. That technique has helped explain two arrays of red dots that seem unique to Chauvet. Using a scanner, the archeologists fed images of the dots into a computer. A program superimposed arrays of hands onto the dots. The best fit to an array of 48 dots is a sequence of handprints made by an adolescent or a short woman. A panel of 92 dots was probably the handiwork of a tall man. The presence of people of different ages and sexes suggests either a communal experience or masters passing their secrets on to apprentices. Even 32,000 years ago, art was created for more than art's sake.