Birds of the Grotte Cosquer: The Great Auk and Palaeolithic Prehistory

Article excerpt

Striking among the figures of the Grotte Cosquer, the Palaeolithic painted cave newly discovered in Mediterranean France, are some waterbirds. They are identified as Great Auks, the great and extinct 'penguin' of the northern ocean.

In discussing the authenticity of painted and engraved art (Clottes et al. 1991; 1992a; 1992b) at the Grotte Cosquer (Alpes Maritimes, France), the presence of three painted 'penguins' has figured (Bourdial 1991: 79). While numerous sea-mammals are known in Palaeolithic art (Leroi-Gourhan 1965; Sonneville-Bordes & Laurent 1983; Bosinski & Bosinski 1991; Fortea et al. 1987), penguin-like birds have been very rarely described. At Cosquer, the sealed cave, state of preservation; palaeo-environmental context and dating (Clottes et al. 1992c; 1992d) ensure the art's authenticity. There remains a striking originality about the three birds outlined together in black.

Carbon determinations for Cosquer show two phases, one about 27,000 b.p., the other around 18,500 b.p.; the representational art seems to belong to the more recent, corresponding to the last glacial maximum (Ruddiman & McIntyre 1981; Guiot et al. 1989).

These birds, called pingouins in the French publication (Clottes et al. 1992a), were mistakenly called 'penguins' in the English translation in ANTIQUITY (1992b), and this was corrected to 'Great Auks' (Cleere 1992).


Two out of the three Cosquer birds (P1, P2) face each other, with the third (P3) facing to the right below the left-hand one (P1). Wall-flaking has degraded the back and feet of P3, and damaged the feet of P1. In the better-preserved P1-P2, the bodies thicken near the feet, the necks are elongated, and the heads are small. A clear beak is apparent only on P3, and a tail, marked by a thicker line, on P1 and P2. Tiny wings are attached to the base of the neck.

Since late Eocene times, the epoch to which the oldest fossil remains are attributed (Simpson 1975), penguins have been known only in the southern hemisphere. In the northern, convergent evolution of the Alcidae family has produced extant species, showing some elements in common with penguins, which are still widely distributed in the north Atlantic (Nettleship & Evans 1985). Penguins have lost the power of aerial flight, but modern alcids -- less profoundly modified -- can fly both in air and in water. Three species of this family (Pinguinus impennis, Uria aalge, Uria lomvia) form a group which recalls the Cosquer representations in the elongated neck and, above the water-line, an erect posture like a penguin. The small wings in the Cosquer paintings identify the Great Auk or Garefowl (Pinguinus impennis), now extinct, which alone among the Alcidae possessed -- like southern penguins -- wings so reduced as to make flight impossible.

The tail feathers of the Great Auk, the bird being flightless, were reduced to a thick tuft, like the outline of the tail depicted at Cosquer evokes. The heads of the Cosquer birds appear schematic, but the bill of P3 is reminiscent of the massive beak of the Great Auk.

The Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)

The English word 'penguin' and the French pingouin used to apply to the northern Garefowl, or Great Auk; they were transferred to birds of the Southern Ocean when Europeans discovered them. In French, Great Auks and Razorbills are still pingouins, which is how the mistake in ANTIQUITY'S translation into English arose. The southern birds, which should be called manchots, a name coined by Buffon (1760), are also often pingouins. In English 'penguin' can now only mean the southern bird.

The Great Auk, largest of the alcid group, was 70 cm high and probably weighed some 5 kg (Stonehouse 1968; Bedard 1969). It may have taken 4-7 years to mature, and lived for 20-25 years. It was an expert and very rapid swimmer, 'flying' with its small wings to several metres underwater (Newton 1865; Grieve 1885). …