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.
“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.
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.”