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L: General view of the Megaloceros panel showing the spray signs (photo credit D. Genty); R: Detail of the Megaloceros panel (photos V. Feruglio-D. Baffier) (all images © 2016 Nomade et al, used under CC BY 4.0)

Since its discovery in 1994, the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave in southern France has been a rich site for researchers to study prehistoric art, featuring early paintings of both animals and humans on its walls. Now the ancient site — which in 2014 received UNESCO World Heritage Site status — may also present the oldest depiction of a volcanic eruption discovered yet, according to a study recently published by a team of French scientists in the journal PLoS One.

“Our work provides the first evidence of an intense volcanic activity between 40 and 30 ka in the Bas-Vivarais region,” researchers write in the study, “and it is very likely that humans living in the Ardèche river area witnessed one or several eruptions.”

Likely finger-painted with red and white pigments, the paintings resemble little fountains — “spray-shape signs,” as the team describes them. They appear on the walls of various galleries in the cave; one appears to emerge from the head of a Megaloceros, which was later drawn in charcoal and partially covers the abstract pattern. The researchers, comparing the age of the symbols with dates of local volcanic activity, believe the cave dwellers were responding to an eruption that occurred approximately 36,000 years ago. The closest volcano would have stood in the Bas-Vivarais region, a little over 20 miles northwest of the cave.

Çatalhöyük mural painting in Turkey, considered the oldest depiction of a volcanic eruption, dated from the 8th/7th millennium BCE

“There’s no way anybody could prove that it is a volcano that they depicted, but for us it’s the hypothesis which is the most probable,” Sebastien Nomade, who led the study, told Nature.

Petroglyphs depicting the Porak volcano eruption in the Syunik region of Armenia (click to enlarge)

If the scientists’ claims are true, the paintings would predate the nearly 9,000-year-old Çatalhöyük mural in Turkey, previously identified in the early 1960s by archaeologist James Mellaart as the earliest representation of such an eruption. Another known depiction is found in southern Armenia, where a group of six petrogylphs dating to the 5th millennium BCE show eruptions of the Porak volcano. The Chauvet image would also predate Pliny the Younger’s famous description of the 79 CE Vesuvias eruption.

“I think they make a pretty good case that it’s potentially a depiction of the kind of volcano that one sees on the landscape,” as Michael Petraglia, a University of Oxford archaeologist (unaffiliated with the study) told Nature. “Maybe there’s more of this out there than we have realized.”

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

6 replies on “Prehistoric Caves May Contain Oldest Paintings of Volcanic Eruptions”

  1. “Prehistoric caves MAY contain…” MAY is the right word as there is nothing to prove that the“spray shaped designs” in the Chauvet cave refer to active volcanoes of the
    French Vivarais. It should be noted that Nature and volcanoes have never been
    depicted in prehistoric caves. There has been a debate around the Çatalhöyük
    mural in Turkey which might well represent the hide of a wild animal (probably a leopard) instead of a volcano. Prehistoric men probably did not depict scenes of landscapes and volcanoes because they were their daily environment and they did not feel the need to represent them on the walls of the caves. Their way of life – and sometimes their survival – depended on wild animals that were often shown with a sacred aspect and included quite a lot of symbols.

  2. I don’t recall there being humans depicted, or in the other known cave of this period (Lascaux). What I know of this cave is that there is possibly only one human depicted: a not-so-obvious portrayal of a woman wrapping around a hard-to-reach ceiling outcropping.

    A grim hypothesis (of mine) regarding the relative absence of human depictions is that the animal depictions remain only because all the human depictions have been scratched out and erased, and/or painted over. If this were true, I would not be surprised; I would be more surprised if it were not true.

    I would make very careful forensic observations to answer this question; this interests me mostly about the caves, aside from their majesty and beauty.

  3. In teaching Ancient Art History, I have a long fascination with “the first paintings”. The fascination has to do with what it took to produce the first images. If anything, we should guard vigilantly against inferences we make from our current vantage point.

    It may be simplistic to state that what “looks like” to us and “what is/was” can be two entirely different items. We live in a world of immense loss of knowledge and information, which does not make us more intelligent but rather more arrogant.

    That said, I am very excited that there is continuing research and exploration into this astounding era. But where images are concerned, it would be my contention that the search has to be as much into the making of the images as it is into the sciences of the caves. On that point, we do not know what prompted the first images, except to say that the artists had to take huge metaphorical leaps to produce the images.

    1. I hope you’re not suggesting these Chauvet images are the actual first images created by human ancestors.

      There is very likely a longer pre-history of making marks, and art, that is gone forever, like you say. And It wouldn’t be such a leap to represent animals after a while, I don’t think.

      That said, I’m hopeful people are out there looking for more.

      1. Absolutely not.
        But what I want to consider is that at some point and place there IS a first image and if we are to consider the images as art, we have to contend with what it meant and what it took to make that first image.
        By extension, all the rest of them with like consideration of of which Chauvet is but one containment.

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