Finally, the Beauty of France’s Chauvet Cave Makes its Grand Public Debut

A high-tech recreation of the immortal artworks shines a new light on the dawn of human imagination

The details of the replica (under construction last year), its area nearly the size of a football field, are based on 700 hours of laser scanning in the actual cave. (Stéphane Compoint)
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After following the path along the cliff, the conservators and I stop before a grotto used to store equipment and monitor the atmosphere inside Chauvet. “We are doing all we can to limit the human presence, so as not to alter this equilibrium,” says Chauveau, showing me a console with removable air-sample tubes that measure the level of radon, a colorless, odorless radioactive gas released from decaying uranium-ore deposits inside caves. “The goal is to keep the cave in the exact condition that it was found in 1994,” he adds. “We don’t want another Lascaux on our hands.” The two conservators make their way here weekly, checking for intruders, making certain that air filters and other equipment are running smoothly.

Afterward, we follow a wooden walkway, constructed in 1999, that leads to the Chauvet entrance. Rodrigues points to a massive slab of limestone, covered in moss, orange mineral deposits and weeds—“all of that rock slid down, and covered the original entrance.”

At last we arrive at a set of wooden steps and climb to the four-foot-high steel door that seals off the aperture. It is as far as I am permitted to go: The Culture Ministry bars anyone from entering the cave during the damp and cold Provençal winter, when carbon dioxide levels inside the grotto reach 4 percent of the total atmosphere, twice as high as the amount considered to be safe to breathe.

It was just a few dozen yards from this spot that another drama played out on the night of December 24, 1994—a story that has re-emerged in the public eye and renewed old grievances. At Chauvet’s invitation, Michel Chabaud and two other spelunkers, all close friends and occasional visitors to the Trou de Baba, entered the cave to share with the original three their exhilaration at the discovery. Six days after their find, Chauvet, Brunel and Hillaire had not yet explored every chamber. Chabaud and his two friends pushed into the darkness—and became the first humans in 30,000 years to penetrate the Gallery of the Lions, the End Chamber, where the finest drawings were found. “We saw paintings everywhere, and we went deeper and deeper,” Chabaud wrote in his diary that evening. “We were in a state of incredible excitement Everyone was saying, ‘incredible, this is the new Lascaux.’” Chabaud and his companions showed the chamber they discovered to Chauvet, he says, and asked for recognition of their role in the find. Chauvet brushed them off, saying dismissively, “You were only our guests.”

I caught up with the three original discoverers—or inventeurs, as the French often call them—a few days before this past Christmas in St. Remèze, a village of winding alleys and red-tile-roofed houses deep in the forests of the Ardèche Gorge. All had gathered in the courtyard of the Town Hall for the 20th anniversary celebration of their find. It had been a difficult week for them. The national press had picked up on the revived quarrel over the cave’s discovery. A headline in the French edition of Vanity Fair declared, “The Chauvet Cave and Its Broken Dreams.” New allegations were being aired, including a charge that one of the three discoverers, Christian Hillaire, had not even been at the cave that day.

The fracas was playing out against protracted haggling between the trio and the Caverne du Pont d’Arc’s financial backers. At stake was the division of profits from the sale of tickets and merchandise, a deal said to be worth millions. Chauvet and his companions had received $168,000 apiece from the French government as a reward for their discovery, and some officials felt the three did not deserve anything more. “They are just being greedy,” one official told me. (The Lascaux discoverers had never received a penny.) With negotiations stalled, the project’s backers had stripped the name “Chauvet” from the Caverne du Pont d’Arc facsimile—it was supposed to have been called the Caverne Chauvet-Pont d’Arc—and withdrawn invitations for the three to the opening. The dispute was playing into the hands of the inventeurs’ opponents. Pascal Terrasse of the Pont d’Arc project announced he was suspending talks with the trio because, he told Le Point newspaper, “I can’t negotiate with the people who aren’t the real discoverers.”

Christian Hillaire, stocky and rumpled, told me after weeks of what he deemed lies drummed up by a “cabal organized against us,” they could no longer remain silent. “We have always avoided making claims, even when we’re attacked,” said Eliette Brunel, a bespectacled, elegant and fit-looking woman, as we strolled down an alley in St. Remèze, her hometown, which was dead quiet in the wintry off-season. “But now, morally, we cannot accept what is happening.” Chauvet, a compact man with a shock of gray hair, said that the falling out with his former best friends still pained him, but he had no regrets for the way he had acted. “The visit [to the Chauvet Cave] on December 24th was a great convivial moment,” he said. “Everything that happened afterward was a pity. But we were there first, on the 18th of December. That can’t be forgotten. It’s sad that [our former friends] can no longer share this satisfying moment with us, but that was their choice.”

We walked together back to the Town Hall, where the celebrations had commenced. Volunteers in Santa hats served mulled wine to 50 neighbors and admirers of the cave explorers, who signed copies of a new book and posed for photos. “We’re among friends now,” Brunel told me. As the light faded and the temperature dropped, Chauvet addressed the gathering in the courtyard. He referred mockingly to the fact that he hadn’t been invited to the opening of the facsimile (“I’ll have to pay €8 like everyone else”) but insisted that he wasn’t going to be dragged into the controversy. “The important thing is that what we discovered inside that cave belongs to all of humanity, to our children,” he said, to applause, “and as for the rest of it, come what may.”

Indeed, all of the squabbling seemed to pale into insignificance as I stood in the End Chamber at the Caverne du Pont d’Arc, gazing through the murk. I studied one monumental panel, 36 feet long, drawn in charcoal. Sixteen lions on the far right sprang in pursuit of a panicking herd of buffalo. To the left, a pack of woolly rhinos thundered across the tableau. The six curving horns of one beast conveyed rapid movement—what Herzog had described as “a form of proto cinema.” A single rhino had turned to face the stampeding herd. I marveled at the artist’s interplay of perspective and action, half-expecting the menagerie to launch itself from the rock. I thought: They have been here.

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