The oldest known cave paintings were found in the Chauvet Cave, located in southeast France. Discovered in 1994, the cave was filled with images of diverse animal species, including rhinoceroses, cats, and bears. Radiocarbon dating showed the images to be more than 30,000 years old.
Eliette Brunel Deschamps, Jean-Marie Chauvet, and Christian Hillaire discovered the Chauvet Cave. This group previously discovered other decorated caves in the region, including Les Deux-Ouvertures, Le Cade, the Grotte du Louoï, and the Caverne de Poitiers. The Chauvet Cave stretches more than 1,700 feet, larger than any previous cave painting discovery. Some of the images they found were of bears, panthers, cacti, handprints, horses, and lions. In addition to the painted images, engravings were found, including horses and mammoths. The images were, for the most part, natural and realistic looking and easily recognizable. Perspective was used as well. Some of the walls were prepared by scraping so the images would stand out better, and scraping was also used to add contours and highlighting. In Chauvet, like most other caves with prehistoric art, it is clear that not only was there more than one artist; different paintings were done at different times, often many years apart.
The Lascaux Cave, located in south-central France, was discovered in 1940. Like the Chauvet Cave, it has many chambers. The first chamber is the “Hall of Bulls,” whose walls are covered with giant bulls, cows, stags, horses, and a figure thought to be a unicorn. This cave also has an image of a dead man, the reason of which is unknown. The Lascaux painters, like those in Chauvet, took advantage of the natural coloring in rocks, allowing colors like red, black, and yellow to be used. Radiocarbon analysis puts the paintings at Lascaux between 15,000 and 13,500 b.c.e.
The Altamira Cave, located in northern Spain, was originally discovered in 1868, but it was not until 1879 that its images were noticed. It was not until 1901, when other caves were discovered, that Altamira was revisited. This time the importance of the discovery was acknowledged, as the cave contained some 100 figures, including bison, horses, deer, wild boar, and handprints.
Why prehistoric peoples decided to create images in caves is a matter of conjecture. Different theories pose that the paintings were magical, intended to exercise control over what was depicted in the images. In addition, there is the thought that these images were simply representations. Other questions include dating and authenticity. The use of carbon dating, which measures the amount of carbon 14 remaining in organic materials, harcoal, bones, or cinders, leads to an approximation of age; however, there is a margin of error.
Whatever the reason prehistoric man decided to put images on the walls of caves, it remains a fascinating aspect of human culture and nature. The majority of prehistoric cave paintings have been found in western Europe, but others have been found in Russia, Africa, Oceania, and possibly Brazil.