36,000 Year Old Cave Art Shows Ancient Volcanic Eruption

The Chauvet cave system has its own high-resolution replica, pictured here. Getty

Volcanology is a fairly ancient science, with descriptions of dramatic eruptions going back at least as far as the year 79 C.E., when Pliny the Elder sailed into the pyroclastic flows emerging from Vesuvius and his heir detailed the unfolding destruction. Now, a study in PLOS ONE has described what may be the earliest known images of erupting volcanoes. These paintings, found in the Chauvet caves of France, are at least 36,000 years old.

This particular cave system was found to contain a series of paintings in 1994. Among them were menageries of animals – a common theme in ancient cave paintings. Examples of human handprints were also found there. However, some of the artwork was at the time too abstract to be properly identified.

Nearby, a new geological survey was conducted in the Bas-Vivarais area, which aimed to look at the geological evolution of the area between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago. This coincides with the period of time wherein the Chauvet cave system was occupied by humans. During this time, the geological survey revealed that 35 kilometers (22 miles) away from the cave system, a major volcanic eruption took place in the Vivarais volcanic field, a series of volcanoes spread over 500 square kilometers (193 square miles).

This research team, using geological mapping and isotopic dating, managed to provide the most accurate timings and precise eruption characteristics of the volcanic activity of Vivarais to date. They note that the activity ranges from the calm and effusive (lava flows, for example) to the iridescent and violent, with buried water and magma interacting explosively to form volcanoes known as maar volcanoes.

The map of the Chauvet cave system (A), the general view of the “Megaloceros panel” (B), and the detail of the spray-like paintings (C). Nomade et al./PLOS ONE

Indeed, carbon dating techniques show that the nearby Chauvet cave paintings were created during this time. The later phases of painting focused around an extinct, deer-like creature called a Megaloceros. Painted using a red pigment, perhaps traced with fingers, these Megaloceros appear to have a spray-like feature emerging from their heads.

These spray shapes are unique among over 340 ornate cave painting sites in France and Spain, which made their identification problematic for a long time. The authors of this study suggest that they appear to resemble the typical lava fountains reminiscent of Strombolian eruptions, gas slug-induced volcanic explosions.

Sebastien Nomade, lead author of the study, told IFLScience: “We noticed that the shape is reminiscent of lava fountains that a young kid could draw.” Although it is impossible to be certain, the authors are cautiously confident of their discovery, noting that the strength of the eruptions could have meant that the original artists likely felt compelled to paint them.

Previously, volcanic imagery was found in Catalhoyuk in central Turkey, and dated to be at least 8,000 years old. The Chauvet cave paintings predate this Turkish example by around 28,000 years, and if the Vivarais eruption theory is accepted by the scientific community, its depiction in volcanic art will be the oldest in human history to date.

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