Tens of thousands of years ago, prehistoric men wrapped in skins against the blistering cold of the Ice Age were creating exquisite cave art on the walls of Chauvet Cave in southern France. To the light of flickering torches and fire in hearths, they painted lions, rhinoceroses, bears and other animals that existed in Europe back then, and still reverberate with long-gone life.
The images done in charcoal were mainly in the deep chambers of the cave, Jean-Michael Geneste of the Université de Bordeaux tells Haaretz. (The color more commonly used in the forward chambers was red ochre.)
The large number of charcoal images has to mean they were producing charcoal in copious amounts just for the purpose of art.
Now a group of researchers has analyzed the charcoal used at Chauvet, some found in hearths. Of 171 samples, all but one originated in pine, a tree that survives in cold conditions, conclude Isabelle Théry-Parisot of the Côte d'Azur University and colleagues in their paper published Wednesday in Antiquity.
The one exception was buckthorn, which also grows in conditions we would not appreciate, they report.
The team does note that their results may have been constrained by their sampling method, i.e., tweezers. But assuming their find, that all but one fragment was pine, accurately reflects the prehistoric reality, that begs the question of why they chose to make charcoal out of pine: choice or necessity.
Reindeer and snow
The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc was discovered in 1994 by amateur spelunkers in a cliffside above the prehistoric path of the Ardeche River.
Previous research demonstrated human use of the cave in two phases: during the Aurignacian, 37,000 to 33,500 years ago, and the Gravettian, from 31,000 to 28,000 years ago.
The Aurignacian and Gravettian phases both fell within the last Ice Age, known as the Quaternary glaciation period, which began 2.6 million years ago and is still petering out (based on the definition that the Antarctic ice sheet has existed continuously since then.)
The ice sheet did extend that far south, Geneste explains: it would have been as cold at Chauvet as it is in (say) Norway today. Reindeer abounded.
Indeed, the nigh-exclusive use of pine to make charcoal during both phases, each spanning millennia, attests that in both the Aurignacian and Gravittian periods, the people at Chavet lived in a very harsh climate.
That predilection for pine
Having established that the artists of Chauvet drew using pine charcoal in both the Aurignacian and Gravettian phases, the researchers set out to learn why. Were they picking up what lay around, which was dead pine branches? Or were they cherry-picking pine and scorning other potential platforms for fire, which they sorely needed for heat, light, to cook, and to make charcoal for art?
Chauvet Cave itself apparently existed in what Théry-Parisot and the group calls a refuge area, which, for whatever reason, was warmer and more humid than neighboring areas during the long glacial episodes of the Quaternary.
In the case of Chauvet, it would have been protected from the elements by the Ardeche gorges, Geneste says. That is why it had trees, most of which were pines, which shed branches that the prehistoric hunter-gatherers could conveniently collect and transport to the cave.
Though pine predominated the landscape, there were other trees, Geneste says. Also, the researchers feel that default exploitation of the only wood at hand is simplistic.
In short, they suspect pine was partly "just there" and partly a choice, which boils down to culture. In other words, the choice passed down the generations. Use pine to make charcoal to paint lions on the wall, kids – the texture is right.
Not all Paleolithic imagery done in black employed charcoal, by the way. Geneste notes that in Lascaux, for instance, manganese oxide was used.
Which leads us to a last point. Did anybody ever actually live in Chauvet?
Collecting deadwood rather than going to the sweaty extreme of hewing down trees and drying them out in storage nicely suits the model of occasional occupation of Chauvet, if the occasional occupants came in summer, not when it was snowing, which would cover and soak the deadwood. You can't burn wet wood. And they drew pictures on the walls of animals to the light of the flickering pine fires. Possibly they might have drawn more, but the cave was sealed off by rockfall over 21,000 years ago, conserving the art for our awestruck observation today.