Saturday, February 27, 2016


Megaloceruos panel, Chauvet-Pont
d'Arc, From PLOS, January 8, 2016.

One area in which I have been deeply interested for quite some time involves trying to figure out ancient people's understanding of the world around them by their imagery of it. Here, on RockArtBlog I have posted columns about meteorology, astronomy, and even paleontology from the point of view of the ancient artists. One area that I have not yet touched on much is geology. That is now changing as I can pass on to you a report of a panel in  Chauvet-Pont D'Arc cave that has been claimed to represent a portrayal of a volcanic eruption.

Stage 1, spray-like features assumed
to represent the volcanic eruption. 
From PLOS, January 8, 2016.

"While most of the drawings in the Chauvet cave depict animals like wooly rhinoceroses, bears, and cave lions, a few drawings deep within the interior have puzzled archaeologists since the cave was discovered in 1994. The red-and-white paintings appear to be shaped like something spraying out of a nozzle, and in some cases were covered up by later drawings, Ewen Callaway writes for Nature. But according to a new study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers believe the images could depict volcanic eruptions nearly 37,000 years ago." (Lewis)

I have argued that ancient peoples certainly knew the world around them. Given that it affected them so greatly, I believe they were aware of the natural world at a level of detail that would rival the observations of our modern science. And, given that a volcanic eruption provides such a spectacular show, I would expect it to be included in any comprehensive effort to depict nature in works of art.

"The closest volcano to the Chauvet cave that was active around the time the paintings were made would have been about 22 miles northwest of the caverns, in the Bas-Viverais region, John Lichfield writes for The Independent. While volcanic eruptions can take many different forms, geologists believe that the Bas-Viverais range may had “strombolian” eruptions, which look similar to the firework-like spray depicted on Chauvet’s walls." (Lewis)
"Even so, prior to this study, researchers had only discovered evidence for eruptions in the region that long predated the arrival of our ancient ancestors on the scene. So geoscientist Sebastien Nomade gathered rock samples from three of the region’s volcanoes. By measuring the levels of radioactive isotopes of argon gas, which is released during volcanic eruptions, Nomade and his team discovered that the Bas-Viverais range had experienced several dramatic eruptions between 19,000 and 43,000 years ago." (Lewis)

Stage 2, Megaloceros added over
earlier painting. From PLOS,
January 8, 2016.

The area around the Chauvet cave was likely populated around this time and far enough away that any inhabitants would have been safe from the eruptions but still have a good view of the action, Callaway writes. “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 tells Callaway." (Lewis)

Given the new dating on volcanic eruptions in the region, and the fact that they would have been visible from quite near Chauvet-Pont d'Arc, the assumption that the spray-like features could well have been meant to depict volcanic eruptions. 

These new dates fall within the range of occupation dates of Chauvet-Pont d'Arc. Human occupation of this cave has been determined by radiocarbon dating. It was occupied by humans during two distinct periods: the Aurignacian and the Gravettian. Most of the artwork dates to the earlier, Aurignacian period (30,000 to 32,000 years ago), and since the presumed volcanic eruption depictions are superimposed on by later cave art, they (the volcanos) must have been done during the Aurignacian period making them among the oldest works of art in the world, and, perhaps, the very first geological illustrations. 

At this point I must confess that I am skeptical of this claim. These marks are just too much like many, many other marks in the caves that are not being identified as volcanic eruptions. As I said above, a volcanic eruption is such an impressive event that we should expect to see it recorded in the art of the people who witnessed it. Personally, I just cannot quite go along with this being such a record.

If you are interested in more detail please refer to the article in PLOS, cited below.


Lewis, Danny
2016       Chauvet Cave Paintings Could Depict a 37,000-Year-Old Volcanic Eruption,, January 19, 2016.

Nomade, Sebastien,et al.,
2016       A 36,000-Year-Old Volcanic Eruption Depicted in the Chauvet-Pont d'Arc Cave (Ardeche, France)?, PLOS, January 8, 2016,

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