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Artists working on the replica Cosquer Cave in Marseille. Source: Cosquer Méditerranée

Race Against Time to Save the 33,000-Year-Old Underwater Cosquer Cave


During glacial Pleistocene, the entry to the famous Cosquer Cave was 100 meters (330 ft) above sea level, but the Holocene sea level rise, propelled lately by climate change, has meant that the entrance to the cave is now 37 meters (121 ft) below sea level. Renowned for being the only place in the world where prehistoric underwater marine art can be found, scientists are now racing against time to save the art from climate change and pollution, reports Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Over 30,000 years old and created over 15 millennia, the spectacular cave art at Cosquer Cave is in grave danger, with a 12 cm (almost 5 in) rise in sea level in 2011 alone. With sea levels rising a few millimeters every year, and the combination of water and plastic pollution is doing more and more damage to the art, archaeologist and diver Luc Vanrell and his colleagues have taken matters into their own hands.

Left: Location of the Cosquer Cave near Marseille. (Lu-xin / CC BY-SA 4.0) Right: Diagram showing Cosquer Cave and its entrance tunnel. (Jespa / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Left: Location of the Cosquer Cave near Marseille. (Lu-xin / CC BY-SA 4.0) Right: Diagram showing Cosquer Cave and its entrance tunnel. (Jespa / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cosquer Cave: A Fortuitous Discovery and an Artistic Language

Discovered by Henri Cosquer in 1985, Cosquer Cave was only revealed to the public in 1991. In that interim six-year period dozens of interested explorers, divers and amateur enthusiasts tried to visit the cave, with three divers losing their lives in the process. It was after this tragic incident that the entrance to the cave was made public. Luc Vanrell explored the cave in 1994, and by 1995 had taken on all the scientific and technical work related to the preservation of this Upper Palaeolithic marvel.

While in use, Cosquer Cave was 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) away from the coast. “At the time we were in the middle of an ice age and the sea was 135 meters [443 ft] lower” than it is today, highlighted archaeologist Michel Olive in AFP. “The entrance to the cave was on a little promontory facing south over grassland protected by cliffs. It was an extremely good place for prehistoric man." Olive has been put in charge of the academic research and study of the cave.

Henri Cosquer, the diver who found the cave, photographed on a boat above the entrance in 1991 (AFP)

Henri Cosquer, the diver who found the cave, photographed on a boat above the entrance in 1991 (AFP)

Though four-fifths of the cave has inadvertently been lost or submerged due to the passage of time, 229 rock art figures depicting 13 species remain on the wall. An added bonus is 69 red or black hand prints, including three that have been left by mistake, some of these made by children. In total, 600 signs, images and rock carvings, which include aquatic life never seen before in cave paintings have been found. The cave was occupied between 33,000 and 18,500 years ago, but no traces or evidence of people having lived there have been found, reports The Daily Mail.

To access the cave, visitors first need to dive to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of southern France, at the gorgeous Calanques inlets east of Marseille. After that, they have to navigate a 137 meter (450 ft) tunnel, before arriving at a submerged cavern. The cavern leads to the 2,500 square meter (27,000 sq. ft.) Cosquer Cave.

On 4 June 2022 a life-sized replica cave, known as Cosquer Méditerranée, is being opened up a few kilometers away in Marseille. The replica will confirm the bountiful coastal wildlife that must have once graced the Mediterranean – horses, deer, bison, ibex, prehistoric auroch cows, saiga antelopes, seals, fish, penguins, and even a cat and a bear. There are also hundreds of geometric signs, and eight depictions of male and female body parts.

A life-sized replica of the underwater Cosquer Cave has been created in Marseille. (AFP)

A life-sized replica of the underwater Cosquer Cave has been created in Marseille. (AFP)

Digital Mapping and Preservation at Cosquer Cave

As of now, Vanrell and his team are rushing to beat the clock to prepare a 3D reconstruction of the cave through digital mapping. “We fantasized about bringing the cave to the surface. When it is finished, our virtual Cosquer cavern—which is accurate to within millimeters—will be indispensable for researchers and archaeologists who will not be able to physically get inside,” said diver Bertrand Chazaly, who is in charge of the operation to digitalize what has come to be known as the “underwater Lascaux” cave. The replica cave, slightly smaller than the original, has cost a whopping $24 million.

In fact, in terms of importance and size Cosquer Cave is right up there with Lascaux, Altamira, and Chauvet, three of the largest cave sites in the world. “And because the cave walls that are today underwater were probably also once decorated, nothing else in Europe compares to its size,” says Vanrell.

Having said that, the alarming rise in sea levels, exacerbated by the pace of anthropocenic activity in the past few decades, has caused the walls to rinse and be leeched out. It has also finally gained the attention of the French government, who have launched a major push to record all available data before it’s too late.

In the meantime, Vanrell and his team are hoping to discover what the purpose of the cave was, in order to understand the ways of our ancestors and their artistic pursuits. After all, examples of Palaeolithic cave art have been located across all continents, including cave art created as far back as 45,000 years ago in Indonesia. Clearly, cave art, which predates human language, is the first form of symbolic visual communication that developed into more complex forms of language much later on.

Top image: Artists working on the replica Cosquer Cave in Marseille. Source: Cosquer Méditerranée

By Sahir Pandey



Pete Wagner's picture

If Earth went extinct, and tens of thousands of years later somebody finds an old highway sign, would they call it ‘art’?  

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

Sahir's picture


I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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