Abstract Chauvet Cave Painting Represent A 36,000 Year Old Volcano

A team of French geologists and paleontologists and led by Jean-Michel Geneste, published in PLoS One that they believe that they have identified the oldest known images of erupting volcanoes, daubed in red and white pigments over other cave paintings in south-eastern France cave site, Chauvet, around 36,000 years ago. The curiously abstract images were first found in 1994 among startlingly precise paintings of lions, mammoths and other animals at a complex of caverns at Chauvet in the Ardèche.

The volcano paintings were thought at first to be abstract images. Getty
The volcano paintings were thought at first to be abstract images. Getty

At the time of initial discovery, paleontologists were puzzled by the seemingly abstract images among detailed and anatomically accurate pictures of prehistoric mammals. The nearest Vivarais volcano was 22 miles northwest of the Chauvet caves. Should this be true, and it likely is, it transforms our conceptions about prehistoric art…The depiction of eruption in the caves seem unusual and anachronistic because they were not figurative like the others.  The cave paintings at Chauvet are already among the oldest, most beautiful and most elaborate in the world. Lead author Geneste writes,

“It is very likely that humans living in the Ardèche river area witnessed one or several eruptions. We propose that the spray-shape signs found in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave could be the oldest known depiction of a volcanic eruption.”

Nomade S, Genty D, Sasco R, et al. A 36,000-Year-Old Volcanic Eruption Depicted in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc Cave (Ardèche, France)?. PLoS ONE. 2016;11(1):e0146621.

2 thoughts on “Abstract Chauvet Cave Painting Represent A 36,000 Year Old Volcano

  1. Cave were, in ancient times, considered the womb of the earth and cave tunnels as pathways to the womb. it therefore seems unlikely that people observing a volcanic eruption on the surface of the earth (the face of the earth) would depict it in such a revered area. The Triangular Dots are an ancient sign for female-spirits viewed as found in the flow of water in the underworld and in water seepage probably amply available within the cave. The overall Form of the ocher applied to the cave wall, a sign for the rising Sun and rebirth, is in the shape of a Bear. Aside from the obvious metaphorical relationship between hibernating bears and caves with resurrection. the cave may have been used as a revered place for the bear lineage or clan.

    1. ccrichey — ooh… that’s a very bold statement given that there’s absolutely no ethnography from palaeolithic Europe.

      We have comparative studies using recent ethnography that offer very persuasive arguments explaining dots and things like that (David Lewis-Williams is as good a place to start as any) but even they aren’t perfectly secure.

      We definitely don’t know enough to interpret triangular dots as ‘female spirits’ to do with water, and we’re really short on kinship, gender, the understanding of space and the ritual component of painting, I’m sorry to say… :(

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