Outside Chauvet Cave


Rory and Katie were standing with others outside Chauvet Cave. Marol was being filmed for an opening sequence.

“I am standing on a limestone outcropping in southern France above tidy vineyards carpeting the Ardèche Valley. In a few minutes," began the attractive woman with long, silvery blonde hair. "We will walk into prehistory, exploring the Cave of Forgotten Dreams, humankind’s earliest church.” She wore a one-piece jumpsuit that zipped closed at the front and spoke with a heavy South African accent. “Hello, I am Marol Pemberton reporting for the Discovery Channel, and I am outside Chauvet Cave. It is unique the world over for the ancient pictographs that line the limestone walls.

A cave bear skull sits on a stone pedestal guarding the cave's entrance. There is a chapel and an altar inside. The chapel walls are lined with thirty-thousand-year-old painted images of horses, bears, and tigers; even mammoths can be found on the walls of this ancient chapel. These were prehistoric man's attempt to document the mysteries of his world.”

“Cut! Good job, Marol,” the cameraman said. Hugh was Marol’s older brother, a handsome, muscular fellow with dirty blonde hair. He and his sister both had light brown freckles covering their faces. They had developed a lucrative and entertaining business traveling the world in search of beauty, mystery and whatever else struck their fancy.

“Let’s walk over to the entrance where we’ll introduce the others,” he said. Clicking the camera off, he bent to grab his bag and leaned against the hillside to allow the others to pass.

“Marol, stay back with Rory and Katie so I can film Gerard working the dogs.” Picking up his camera, Hugh followed behind a fellow walking two dogs on long leashes. They stopped periodically to sniff the rock piles and grottos.

“What are they looking for?” Katie asked Gerard as she stroked one of the dogs.

“They’re sniffing for updrafts. Caves have particular smells, and these two are trained to find the scents. The men who discovered Chauvet Cave sensed a subtle airflow and began clearing away rocks. The narrow shaft they found led to a cave sealed by rock slides many millennia earlier.”

“Can the dogs sniff dangerous fumes, pockets of deadly gases?” Rory asked.

Gerard chuckled, shaking his head. “Many wrongly believe cave air is stuffy, unhealthy, low in oxygen content and saturated with toxic gases. However, this stems from the confusion between natural caves and mines. In man-made mines air circulation is slow, requiring a mechanical aid to guarantee the health of the miners working in them and to channel out waste substances produced by the machinery. So, we don’t do mines.”

“Why are caves safer?” Katie asked.

“Because they leak like sieves, so they have excellent airflow turnover,” Gerard explained.

“Caves are complex systems that have more than one entrance and communicate with the surface through a system of fractures and small conduits. Caves can breathe; the air currents that form inside a cave become more intense when the difference between the internal and external temperatures increases. Hence the air inside a cave is continually mixed, and there is never a problem with lack of air or oxygen.”

“But tropical caves are different,” Gerard's partner said. “Their higher temperatures and humidity levels create an element of danger, especially in caves with bats. Guano fermentation forms pockets of CO2, causing fatigue and exhaustion in humans. We use a torch for a warning device. If the acetylene flame will not stay lit it is too dangerous to proceed.”

Hugh stopped filming the dogs when Marol signaled that she was ready. She now stood in front of the entrance to the cave. “Ready,” Marol said as she placed the script at her feet.

“Action!” Hugh began filming.

“This is the entrance to a cave discovered by three explorers a few days before Christmas, 1994. The opening was so narrow they could barely squeeze through it. Descending into the unknown, these men made one of the most significant discoveries in the history of human culture.

Although the spelunkers felt it a particularly beautiful cavern, at first, Chauvet Cave didn’t seem to be unique. However deep inside they found scores of figures painted in black and ochre on the white limestone walls. These are the oldest cave paintings ever seen and have been dated back 32,000 years.”

She picked up the script before continuing. Nodding her head, she resumed her take.

“The narrow tunnel through which the discoverers crawled has been widened and secured with a massive steel door, like a bank vault. A guard is always posted, and Jean is here today to allow us in and give us safety instructions.”

Marol turned the microphone to a fellow standing in front of the door. He nodded and cleared his throat, speaking English with a definite French accent. “Once we pass through the door it will be locked behind us so as not to compromise the delicate climate inside,” he explained as he led the group inside.

“Why are you closing the door?” Rory asked.

“To keep people out. We allow only a handful of people inside each week,” Jeane explained. “This cave was discovered in 1994. Another cave with paintings, was discovered at Lascaux fifty years earlier and was opened to tourism after the war in 1948. By 1955, the influx of 1,200 daily visitors had taken its toll; too many people brought too much heat, humidity, carbon dioxide, and other contaminants, altering the climate in the caves, resulting in increased condensation and the introduction of lichens and molds, which were damaging the paintings. It was closed with a similar steel door in 1963 to help preserve the art.”