The "Prehistoric Sistine Chapel"
June 26, 2014

The “Prehistoric Sistine Chapel”

A series of more than a thousand cave paintings in France, dubbed the “Prehistoric Sistine Chapel,” has been granted World Heritage status by UNESCO. They are the oldest known human drawings and of a number, quality and condition to make them a wonderfully exciting place for anyone interested in history, or indeed art.

The images on the walls of the Decorated Cave of Pont d’Arc, or Grotte Chauvet, are 36,000 years old, and were only discovered in 1994 because a rockfall had covered them 23,000 years earlier. They are the work of the Aurignacian people, who are thought to represent the first modern human culture in Europe. They are the earliest and best preserved examples, and UNESCO are quoted by the BBC as saying “The large number of over 1,000 drawings covering over 8,500 square meters (90,000 square feet), as well as their high artistic and aesthetic quality, make Grotte Chauvet an exceptional testimony of prehistoric cave art.”

The state of preservation is due to the rockfall over the entrance 23,000 years ago and it is this, along with the high quality of the artwork, which makes this such a fantastic discovery. The pictures include various animals such as wild cats, rhinos, bison and bears. There are also prints of real ancient animals, and remnants including the remains of large cave bears which are believed to have hibernated at the site.

These cave paintings constitute the oldest cultural property classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, and are deserving of such a grand title as the “Prehistoric Sistine Chapel.” However, the way in which the public can appreciate them will be very different to the Sistine Chapel, which, as anyone who has visited will know, is like a cross between a school playground at lunchtime and the floor of the New York stock exchange during a financial crisis. The word reverence does not immediately spring to mind, as it is almost too difficult to concentrate on the incredible sight over the sounds of giddy tourists which may have resembled the noises of wild animals like those on the cave walls. In the French caves, by contrast, currently only 200 researchers a year are allowed inside, and some sections of the various 800-meter long branches remain unexplored.

A full-size replica is currently being constructed at a site nearby which can be enjoyed by the public, suggesting that nobody except researchers will ever get to see the real thing. This, to me, is a difficult issue. We are told by the researchers that the cave was never permanently inhabited by humans “but was instead of a sacred character” and “used for shamanist ritual practice.” So I admit that along with being of a hugely important, but also potentially fragile nature, the site was sacred to someone once, and perhaps should not be trampled upon noisily as the Sistine Chapel is. I am also aware that visits to some ancient sites in Egypt, for example, are being reduced, because human breath has been found to be damaging to them. However, one wonders what is the important of knowing about these kinds of places? Once all information that helps to build a bigger picture of history has been taken, what is their purpose? To only be known about, but not seen? Surely less frequent visits, for those who wish to apply and wait their turn, should be permitted, as a middle ground between the Sistine Chapel chaos and the slightly sad idea that most of us can only view replicas of such incredible discoveries.

Image Credit: AP

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John is a freelance writer from the UK, currently living in Japan and thoroughly enjoying their food and whiskey. His first novel, Three Little Boys, and his travel book, Following Football, are currently available on

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