Grotte Chauvet 2 at Caverne du Pont d’Arc a Time Warp
It took 90 minutes to turn back the clock 36,000 years. The Grotte Chauvet 2 is a UNESCO World Heritage Site at Caverne du Pont d’Arc. Located in the Ardeche, it’s a quick drive from most locations in the Bouches du Rhône. The site which opened to the public in 2015 includes a 3,500 m2 (38,000 sqft) replica of the cavern and the prehistoric art found on its walls. In addition to the cavern experience, there is an interpretive centre, cafeteria-style restaurant and boutique.
Turning Back the Clock
The actual Grotte Chauvet cave was discovered on December 18, 1994, by three amateur spelunkers Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet who were out for a walk. These men realizing the magnitude of the discovery alerted members of the scientific community who continue to explore the cave extensively. The most significant finding is the detailed drawings of animals on the cavern walls, the oldest known artwork on earth. Carbon dating of the illustrations, artifacts, and animal skulls indicates that humans were present and active in the cave, as were large bears.
Read: Bear DNA is clue to age of Chauvet cave art. ~ New Scientist
There remains extensive debate among the archeological community, but some agreement that separate groups of people painted in the cavern in two distinct timeframes 37,000 to 33,500 years ago and again between 31,000 to 28,000 years. The cavern entrance was blocked by a rockslide (or slides) approximately 29,000 years ago, sealing, and protecting the contents from the elements.
Additional reading: Chauvet cave: The most accurate timeline yet of who used the cave and when ~ Los Angeles Times
Prehistoric Art Replica
Formed out of concrete, ingenious set design and artist representations of the cave art the Grotte Chauvet 2 feels authentic. So genuine that I had to remind myself a few times during the guided tour that the bear skulls and stalagmites were not real. Enter the cavern through a heavy metal door and forget the contemporary world for an hour. Like icicles suspended from the cavern roof stalactites dangle above stalagmites dropping small amounts of water that will eventually join the two in a pillar formation.
When the three explorers entered the cavern through a rock-strewn entrance, they might have encountered animal bones. Bear skulls and scratches on the walls were indications of the large mammals that used the cave during periods of hibernation. However, these men were not expecting to uncover the detailed, and oldest, prehistoric art on the cavern walls.
Practical Information for Grotte Chauvet
Caverne du Pont d’Arc website
The tours run every 10-15 minutes; in French, however, there are audio guides available in multiple languages.
It’s best to take a light sweater or jacket; the temperature inside the replica cavern is cool and a bit humid.
Photos are not permitted inside the Grotte Chauvet 2.
Hungry? La Terrace provides cafeteria-style meals and light bites.
The Aurignacian Gallery, which includes a short film on life during that era, is well worth seeing. There are plenty of interactive displays for the kids. If possible, try to time your visit to the cavern after you have spent some time in this section. It will help put the cave into perspective.
There is plenty of free parking on site.
Image credits: All photos provided by and published with the permission of Caverne du Pont d’Arc ©-Patrick-Aventurier
Drive home along the Ardèche River. There are plenty of pull-outs along the road and opportunities for photo-ops of the Ardèche Gorges which stretches 30-kilometres. Although, in peak season expect crowds especially near the 60-metre high Pont d’Arc, a natural rock arch. If you have time, dip a toe in the river and rent a kayak and float down the river for a quieter experience.