Outside the village of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in the Rhône- Alpes region of southern France, the Ardèche River flows through sheer cliff canyons flanked by muted gray limestone walls. On a narrow terrace overlooking the valley lies the entrance to the Grotte Chauvet, a vast primordial underground cavern that shelters some of man’s earliest art. Once a lair for Stone Age cave bears (the size of modern Kodiak bears), Chauvet in its floor holds their paw marks and scratches and is littered with bony remains of their prey.
As we look to the walls a different picture unfolds. Trekking back from the ledge lined with scrub oak and ivy and into the mountain for a quarter of a mile, through a labyrinth of breathtaking chambers and galleries, is like plunging backward into the last ice age. Well after the cave bears abandoned the cavern for the tundra and steppe with spring in full bloom, the earliest humans ventured into Chauvet for some unknown reason and left a collection that transcends all time between then and now. Each painting, now thirty thousand years old, in its own right is a masterpiece—strikingly rich in style, depth, and form—which viewed together capture scenes from a world that footprints, pawmarks, fragments of bones, and carbon dating can’t begin to convey.
More than four hundred animals that then roamed the continent—with one human figure, a Venus, in their midst—come to life on the walls singly and in panels. But beyond their artistry, what separates them from their brethren found in other caves lies in which creatures the artists portrayed. Aside from the prey then most hunted by humans (reindeer, horses, ibex, and bison), the walls feature many more dangerous species—lions, rhinos, cave bears, and panthers, among other predators that once roamed outside. Yet, what stands out clearly and, perhaps, is most telling of what brought these artists inside Chauvet, is that the paintings do not depict a fear of these creatures, but instead celebrate their vitality.
The blink of her eyes in a horse’s expression. A thrust of a rhino’s head threatening to charge. The outward stare of a pride of cave lions, furtively stalking and ready to pounce. Scraping layers of clay to uncover the limestone, sketching and adding dimension in charcoal, painting in pigments with nuance and shading, the artists inspired their creatures to life. In the flickering torchlight, with blackness around them and their breath alone breaking the silence of the cave, the painters descended the depths of the earth to focus their vision on animals: their behaviors and patterns, the life force within them, and a sense of the deep-rooted kinship we share. In spite of a rock slide ten thousand years later that cached them in rubble for twenty thousand more, these paintings convey Chauvet’s sacred importance as a place where man pondered his connection with animals.
Around the world, from culture to culture, our histories, traditions, and lifestyles as humans intrinsically mingle with animals’ lives and many times depend upon them—for giving us food, clothing our bodies, and hauling our belongings around the countryside. Yet, at the end of the day, once their roles are fulfilled, we still feel a sense of connection to them. That perennial place that they hold in our psyche, the strength of their image we cherish as symbols, the parts that they play day-to-day in our lives: All exist because of our kinship with them. As our ancestors found in the Grotte Chauvet, we are drawn to bring animals into our lives because we see ourselves reflected in them.
This post is an excert from Chapter One of The Soul of All Living Creatures: What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human (Random House / Crown, 2013).