When Lions Ruled France

Article excerpt

At Chauvet Cave, 32,000-year-- old paintings tell of extinct big cats and the artists with whom they shared their domain.

It is a rainy October morning in the south of France. The two of us, a field biologist and an archaeologist, are preparing to enter Chauvet Cave, above the Ardeche River. The purpose of our visit is to share thoughts and observations on both the Paleolithic paintings in the caves and their subjects-great cats that have been extinct for more than 12,000 years. As we approach Chauvet, we admire the tall gray limestone cliffs that flank the winding river as it twists its way down to the broad valley of the Rhone. The landscape is lush with low trees and shrubs, and the canyon walls are honeycombed with shallow caves and deep caverns. That humans lived in Europe long before the last glaciation is well known, but the vivid and abundant evidence of their early presence in this region is still startling. Artwork and human remains indicate that some 40,000 years ago, our ancestors shared this landscape with rhinoceroses, bison, mammoths, aurochs, wild horses, and giant elks. In those days, the Ardeche region had a climate like that of southern Sweden today, and the low-lying flatlands around the river were covered with grass. People lived in small communities of perhaps twenty to thirty individuals, scattered thirty to forty miles apart. Using spearheads made from reindeer antlers, they hunted large ungulates, mostly reindeer and bison.

But people were not the only hunters of these large, hoofed mammals. Wolves, leopards, hyenas, and cave lions also preyed upon them. Cave lions (Panthera atrox) were a different species from the lion we know today in Africa and India. Larger than Siberian tigers, cave lions once ranged throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Their bones are common in the La Brea tar pits of Los Angeles, and mummified remains have been found in Alaska and Siberia. Chauvet Cave contains an extensive record of cave lions' behavior-thanks to the talented artists who settled there 32,000 years ago. Before its discovery in 1994, only a few images of lions were known from European caves. Chauvet is one of the most profusely decorated Paleolithic caves in the world and is unique in its large gallery of lion portraits. [See "Rhinos and Lions and Bears (Oh, My!)," Natural History, May 1995.]

Perhaps the most famous landmark in the Ardeche is the Pont d'Arc, a natural arch formed by a sharp meander in the river that eventually cut through a narrow limestone wall hundreds of thousands of years ago. The river now passes under the resultant rock bridge, which is a half mile from the cave. A wide loop of its former course filled in and became a fertile pasture near the water's edge, attracting large numbers of herbivores during drier months. Drawn to the area by the abundant game, local hunting tribes were probably impressed by the spectacular rock formations; unusual geological features still inspire stories and origin myths among the world's tribal peoples. We know from their engravings that ancient hunters saw resemblances between unusually shaped rocks and the figures of mammoths and bison. Perhaps they perceived some of the giant rock formations here as animals turned to stone. At any rate, the significance of the cave as a major sanctuary may well have been related to its proximity to the Pont d'Arc.

The opening of the cave is situated about two hundred feet above the riverbed, and the cliff beneath the entrance is steep. Anyone sitting in this opening would have had a clear view of the valley without the risk of being surprised by an approaching animal or human. Perhaps its inaccessibility is also the reason the cave remained so long undiscovered by moderns.

Cave bears (the size of modern-day Kodiak bears) hibernated in Chauvet, and their bones still litter the floor, but humans left behind few signs other than the spectacular animals they drew on the walls in ocher or charcoal or by scratching into the soft wall surfaces. …