Then, in the pale glow of their head lamps, the explorers noticed two red lines on a cavern wall. Chauvet, a government employee who oversees the protection of the many historically important caves in the region, recognized the markings as "characteristic of the Stone Age." What he did not immediately realize -- and the world did not know until the French Culture Ministry announced it last week -- was that they had discovered an archaeological trove that may rival even the fabled drawings on the cave walls at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. The spelunkers had found an extraordinarily clear window on prehistoric life.
Restraining their curiosity, the trio crawled back outside and resealed the tunnel entrance. "Not only to keep people out," Chauvet explains, "but to return the airflow to what it had been before; a change in the interior climate could ruin whatever was inside." Six days later they returned with better lighting and plastic sheets that they spread about to avoid disturbing artifacts on the cavern floors.
Probing deeper into the cavern system, they began coming upon exquisite, intricately detailed wall paintings and engravings of animals, as well as numerous images of human hands, some in red, others in black pigment. "I thought I was dreaming," says Chauvet. "We were all covered with goose pimples."
The art was in pristine condition, apparently undisturbed for up to 20,000 years, as was other evidence of the ancient artists' presence: flint knives, mounds of clay used for making paint, and charred fire pits.
Photographs of the Stone Age art show images of lions, bison, deer, bears, horses and some 50 woolly rhinos. "These paintings are more beautiful than those in Lascaux," says Patrice Beghain, the regional head of cultural affairs. "There is a sense of rhythm and texture that is truly remarkable." One mural shows several horses apparently charging -- in a Stone Age mismatch -- toward two rhinos.
A few species represented on the walls of the Chauvet cave, as it has already been named, had never before been seen in prehistoric artwork: an owl engraved in rock and a panther depicted in red pigment. The image of a hyena, also painted in red, is only the second one discovered in Stone Age caves.
Of particular interest to Jean Clottes, France's foremost expert on prehistoric rock art, is the fact that, in contrast to previous cave artwork, images of predatory and dangerous species -- bears, lions, rhinos, a panther and a hyena -- far outnumber the horses, bison, deer and mammoths usually hunted by Stone Age people. "The paintings in this cave," he says, "will force us to change how we interpret Stone Age art."
Beghain is particularly struck by the skull of a bear perched on a stone near a wall adorned by an ursine image. "What is significant," says the official, "is that some 17,000 to 20,000 years ago, a human being decided to put it in that particular place for a particular reason. I think it fair to assume that the bear did not self-decapitate on that spot to intrigue us." Was this an altar for some Paleolithic ceremony?
Stung by lessons learned at Altamira and Lascaux, where initial unrestricted access to the caves obliterated archaeological clues and led to the rapid deterioration of artwork, the French Culture Ministry has put the Chauvet cave off limits to all but a handful of experts and installed video surveillance cameras and police guards at the entrance. "Our goal," says Beghain, "is to keep the cave in this virgin state so that research can, in theory, continue indefinitely."
No further research is needed to establish one fact about the Chauvet cave art: it was created by artists of remarkable talent. "I remember standing in front of the paintings of the horses facing the rhinos and being profoundly moved by the artistry," says Clottes. "Tears were running down my cheeks. I was witnessing one of the world's great masterpieces."
CAPTION: ARTFUL STAMPEDE: Prehistoric horses, battling bison, a rhino, wild cattle and a miniature elephant compete for space on a crowded cavern wall
CAPTION: RHINOCEROS: 50 drawings of woolly rhinos, far left, were discovered in the Chauvet cave, more than in all other Stone Age sites combined
CAPTION: BEAR AND PANTHER: While bruins were among the common subjects of cave artists, this image of the big cat, left, is the first one ever found
© Time Inc. 1995
Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles