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In 1994 the French speleologist Jean-Marie Chauvet discovered a hidden chamber in a cave near Vallon-Pont d’Arc (Ardèche), the walls of which were covered with drawings of animals.
‘Impossible’, says Paul Pettitt, a well-known British specialist in the field of cave art, at the University of Sheffield.In his view, the aesthetic quality of the drawings unmistakably shows that they must be much more recent.Otherwise, says Pettitt, it is as if you are claiming to have found ‘a Renaissance painting in a Roman villa’.Despite an extensive study in 2001 (, DOI: 10.1038/35097160) which confirmed the earlier French dating, Pettitt’s view remains unchanged.Even an analysis of the charcoal found among the remains of fires in the cave, most likely used to make the drawings, failed to persuade him. Hans van der Plicht in the 14C lab at the University of Groningen also resulted in an age of 30,000 years.‘Pettitt says that the age of the charcoal does not tell us anything about the age of the drawings’, is how the Groningen carbon-dating expert explains the view of his British colleague.
‘And he has a point; you could still make drawings with it today.’ In a new attempt to settle the dispute, the French palaeogeneticist Jean-Marc Elalouf examined the bones of cave bears found in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave and a cave in nearby Deux-Ouvertures.
The Groningen physicist Van der Plicht also contributed to this study that is soon to be published in the (now online, DOI: 10.1016/20).
Besides drawings of cave bears on the cave walls, numerous bones of this long extinct bear species were also found in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave. Elalouf had the age of some of these remains investigated in Groningen using the radiocarbon dating (14C) method.
Mitochondrial DNA from the bones was also analyzed.
The DNA material showed little genetic variation – which suggests that the population was small and therefore vulnerable – and the 14C dating showed that the cave bear remains were between 37,000 and 29,000 years old.
Despite this new evidence, Pettitt remains sceptical.