Stone age Rock Art in Famous Cave of Forgotten Dreams May Show Oldest Human Depiction of Volcanic Eruption
A team of researchers has theorized that rock carvings in the form of spray-like flourishes from a cone shape are the earliest known depictions of a volcanic eruption. The carvings and associated cave paintings date back about 36,000 years and were discovered in the French cave Chauvet-Pont d’Arc near Ardèche in 1994.
The cave has some of the world’s earliest artworks, say authors Sebastien Nomade of the Sciences of Climate and the Environment Laboratory of the University of Paris-Saclay and his team. The age of the cave’s paintings has been engulfed in controversy, they write, but radiocarbon dating of charcoal used to draw them has estimated their age at around 37,000 to 34,000 years before the present.
The United Nations granted the cave World Heritage status in 2014. The cave was also featured in Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams .
In their paper, available to the public in the journal PLOS One online, the authors described the artworks in the cave:
“The Chauvet-Pont d’Arc bestiary is particularly renowned for the predominance of so-called "dangerous animals" (e.g. cave lions, mammoths, rhinoceros), which are rather uncommon in Upper Palaeolithic iconography from Western Europe. This bestiary also contains more classical animal drawings (e.g. horse, bison, megaloceros, ibex…) and human representations (negative and positive hands, vulvas, female lower body). This figurative bestiary coexists with a wide range of engraved or painted abstract signs (schematic “W”, "butterfly" and “spray-shape”) some of them unique to the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave. The meaning of some of these signs is still unknown or subject to several hypotheses including, as we suggest here, depictions of volcanic eruptions.”
Researchers say the spray or flourish from a cone shape carving into the rock above the megaloceros in Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in France, reproduced more clearly on the right, may depict a volcanic eruption. A megaloceros is an extinct species of deer with huge horns. ( Nomade et al./PLOS One )
The researchers, most of them physical scientists, say people living in the region likely witnessed intense volcanic activity just 35 kilometers (22 miles) to the north of the cave between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago. “You just have to climb the small hill on top of Chauvet, and looking north you see the volcanoes. During the night you could see them glowing and you could hear the sound of the volcanic eruption,” Nomade told Nature News . He adds that there’s no way to prove that the images depict volcanic eruptions, “but for us it’s the hypothesis which is the most probable.”
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The paper says their research provides the first evidence of such volcanic eruptions in the Ardèche River area from that time. They write that the spray-shape signs in the cave predate by more than 34,000 years Pliny the Younger’s description of Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD and by more than 28,000 years a mural at the Çatalhöyük site in Turkey that scholars believe represents an eruption.
A reproduction of an 8,000-year-old mural from Çatalhöyük, Turkey, showing what researchers believed was the first depiction of a volcanic eruption made by human hand. ( Nomade et al./PLOS One )
They say that no other depictions of landscapes or geological phenomena are known in the many cave paintings of Europe. They wrote:
“About 340 Paleolithic caves with parietal art have been discovered in Europe, the large majority of them in South France and Northern Spain with the oldest dating back between 40 to 36 ka [thousand years]. This period coincides with the arrival in Western Europe of anatomically modern humans ( Homo sapiens ) and is associated to the Aurignacian culture […] So far, and despite the large number of caves studied since the early 19th century, no painting, petroglyphs or engravings depicting natural scenery or geological phenomena from the Upper Paleolithic period have been found in Europe.”
These reproductions of paintings from Chauvet cave are believed to represent lionesses because of the absence of manes. The paintings from Chauvet, unlike many other Stone Age caves in Europe, show predominantly dangerous animals. ( Public Domain )
They wrote in their report that once they realized there had been volcanic eruptions around the time the people made the drawings and carving, they determined the art was a visual record of what those prehistoric people saw—lava fountains typical of Strombolian eruptions.
Gizmodo reports that when Nomade and his team analyzed rocks from three nearby volcanic centers using argon isotope dating, they found evidence of several volcanic eruptions between 19,000-43,000 years ago. Obviously, “If people were living in Chauvet-Pont D’Arc when Bas-Vivarais erupted, they could hardly have failed to notice.”
Featured image: (A) A map of the cave with prehistoric representations of volcanoes, including (B) and (C) the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc megaloceros and volcanic spray (Photo by D. Genty, drawing by V. Feruglio-D Baffier). Source: Nomade et al./PLOS One
By: Mark Miller