Posts Tagged ‘Chauvet Cave’

chauvet cave

Last night, I watched Werner Herzog’s film on Chauvet Cave. It is called Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and it is an exploration of the art of a Paleolithic people, who drew amazingly lifelike depictions of the great beasts that once roamed Europe at the edge of the vast ice sheets. In true Herzogian style, it is a mixture of the scientific findings about the images of the cave and deep romantic speculation about the artists and hunters who made them.

Chauvet Cave, though located in southern France was once home to hordes of megafauna, including bison, aurochs, woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, reindeer, red deer, and primitive horses. The artists also included images of European cave lions, revealing that male cave lions did not have manes, and they also included the only known image of an ancient European leopard.  There was at least one image of a cave hyena, a cold-adapted relative of the modern spotted hyena, which crushed bones with its massive jaws and likely lived as a hunter-scavenger as the modern species does today.

And yes, they also included images of cave bears, now extinct relatives of the brown bears that are slowly making a comeback to several countries in Europe. There is some evidence that bears were of spiritual significance to these people, for there a place in the cave where a bear skull sits atop what appears to be an altar.

Many of these creatures were food and clothing for these people. Others, like lions, hyenas, and leopards, would have been enemies and competitors for the game species.

Their minds must have on animals almost constantly. They were true naturalists, for their lives depended upon a detailed knowledge of zoology, ecology, and, yes, ethology.

There is some debate in the literature about the exact age of images on the cave. Radiocarbon dating of the rock art,  animal remains, and charcoal in the cave suggests that the most ancient images of the cave are between 30,000 and 32,000 years old.

The cave was not known to modern science until 1994, and in the intervening millennia, the great beasts have gone. There are no more cave lions or cave bears or cave hyenas.  Leopards and the European lion that replaced the cave lion lived in parts of southern Europe into historical times. They are also both gone.

Wild horses and aurochs exist only in their domesticated forms. The Hereford and the thoroughbred descend from the fell beasts whose images grace Chauvet’s walls. Domestication has worked its ways on their kind to the point that neither creature seems like it could have come from the wild at all.

The geography is vastly different. The vast sheets of ice that covered the Alps and most of what is now Germany no longer hold up the sea level. Great Britain is now an island.

Temperate forest replaced the taiga and then modern humans turned that forest into cultivated fields. Villages were built, the roads, then cities, then ancient empires of Europe.  Over the centuries, the wildness receded more and more. To a North American like me, most of Europe resembles a cultivated garden that is totally devoid of most raw nature. We have d deer-hunting Eastern coyotes and massive black bears. They have red foxes and badgers.

The images of those long-lost people must have burned something into my psyche. When I went to bed, I dreamed of animals. I saw a white-tailed doe standing along forest path as she nursed two dappled fawns that nuzzling hard against her teats. I saw mallard hens with scores of fluffy ducklings waddling their way to the nearest pond.

And I dreamed that I got a bear on my trail cam. It was not the common black bear of the East either. It was a brown bear with a shaggy brown hump and a silver mane.

Never mind that no brown bear ever lived in this part of the country. Dreams are without reason or knowledge.

They are mere the expression of what the mind has absorbed and wishes to express.

When I awoke, it occurred to me that I am not so different from those Paleolithic hunter-artists of 30,000 years ago.

My knowledge of nature does not feed me the same way it did for them, but it feeds me another way. Without nature and animals, I don’t think I could survive.  My spirit just couldn’t take that deprivation.

So that which feeds my spirit I pay homage to on my cave wall.

But my cave is not made of limestone. Mine is of the digital age.

On my blog I post the animals that I see or capture on my trail cameras. I get coyotes, two species of fox, Virginia opossums, raccoons, black bears, two species of squirrel, bobcats, and white-tailed deer. I’ve captured wild turkeys, red-tailed hawks, American crows, ravens, and turkey vultures.

White-tailed deer are among the oldest extant species of ungulate. Virginia opossums don’t differ greatly from the earliest of mammals that once scurried in terror from the predatory dinosaurs. The coyotes that roam the forests here are not too dissimilar from those of the later Pleistocene or from the ancestors of the wolf-coyote-golden jackal lineage that first evolved in North America during the Blancan Stage.

American bison once thundered across these hills, and where the coyotes now let loose their high-pitched howls, one could hear the deeper and more eerie refrains of the wolf known by the Linnean name of Canis lupus lycaon. The white-tailed deer played second billing the vast herds of wapiti, which English-speaking North Americans called “elk.”  The bobcats slinked below the gaze of the great cougars that stalked the deer,

New casts of characters play the story of life. Extinction and extirpation vs.  colonization and introduction. Predator and prey. Plant vs. herbivore. Mutation. Natural selection. Genetic drift.

This is the story that was played out before we came, and it is the story that will be played out so long as living things exist on this planet.

I wonder if my digital cave art will last as long as those as Chauvet Cave. A piece of me hopes so, but I know that this electronic age is a much more tenuous existence that that of the Ice Age hunters. Nuclear weapons hold the possibility of wiping us out in one fell swoop, and climate change could set off a mass extinction event that might even wind up dooming us all.

A limestone cave, hidden from the wages of modernity for thousands of years, has a much better chance of surviving that a bit of digital artifact that exists only on the ether of the internet.

I don’t think this will be The Blog of Forgotten Dreams. Not the least of which is that I lack the skill of the artists of Chauvet. I can barely write my own name legibly.

So my art is what I type and what images I can capture on digital devices.

And while I dream,  I shall remember.

When I go, the story of life will go on.

And there I rest my hope.







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During the Pleistocene, a very large cat once roamed from Alaska to Mexico.

Whatever it was exactly is still being debated.

The current taxonomy of this species is that it is a subspecies of the lion, Pathera leo. Analysis of mitochondrial DNA from extinct Eurasian cave lions, American lions, and modern lions strongly suggests that these animals were all part of one rather genetically diverse species that, as as happened with so many other carnivore species, lost this genetic diversity at the end of the Pleistocene. The Eurasian cave lion and American lions were sister taxon, and it has been established that the Eurasian cave lion was very closely related to the modern species.

However, this same study found that Eurasian cave lions did not interbreed with modern lions, even though their ranges overlapped in the Near East and Southeastern Europe, and Eurasian lions did not interbreed with American lions where their ranges overlapped in Beringia. So they may have represented three distinct species of lion, but one must be careful assuming species status through MtDNA studies. Mitochondrial DNA tells us the inheritance through the matriline. Granted, MtDNA has its own genome and is more resistant to mutation, which makes it a useful tool in determining relationship, it is only one part of the genome.

To make things even more confusing, some authorities have suggested that the American lion was a tiger–hence the stripes in this depiction.

A recent morphological study that compared the skulls of American lions with other pantherine cats found that the American lion’s mandibluar morphology was more similar to jaguar than to the lion. The study suggests that the American lion was actually its own species, which was closely related to the jaguar.

However, the genetic evidence suggests that the American lion was a form of lion. Maybe it was its own distinct species of lion. Or maybe it was nothing more than a subspecies of a once quite diverse species that we call Panthera leo.

Panthera leo atrox or Panthrea atrox it seems clear that this animal was a lion, not a jaguar or jaguar relative. The reason for having a jaguar mandible probably result for living in the North American Pleistocene environment, which was populated by an even greater diversity of megafauna than exists on the Serengeti today. Jaguars have very powerful jaws, which they also evolved to deal with this type of prey. (Jaguars lived in North America long before they lived in South America). It would make sense that the lion of the Americas would have evolved similar adaptations to hunt similar prey.

One should be as leery of morphological studies as MtDNA studies. Morphological studies could never tell you that pugs and borzoi belong to the same species. However, genetic evidence very clearly would show this relationship.

More study is needed to determine where the American lion and the Eurasian cave lion fit in the taxonomy of the Pantherine cats. My guess is that they are actually subspecies of lion, and nuclear DNA studies, should any be able to be performed, will find more evidence of a gene flow across these types. But if not, they were all likely interfertile, and whether we consider them subspecies or separate species might always be up for debate.

We don’t have modern American lions or cave lions around to do any experimentation. We do know that male cave lions lacked manes.There are definite male lions depicted at Chauvet Cave in France that clearly have no manes. Because American lions evolved from the ancestors of cave lions, they probably didn’t have them either. There is evidence that Eurasian cave lions lived in prides, but there is also evidence that American lions did not. So there may have been behavioral reasons why these lion populations did not interbreed, even if they could.

Many questions have been raised in the research on the exact taxonomies of these two extinct big cats. One can only hope that a nuclear DNA study might be possible.]

Of course, those are old lion remains, and DNA is hard to extract. Complete sequences are ephemeral phantoms when it comes to ancient specimens.

Their exact position is simply nebulous– as it is with so many different species that went extinct in the eons of prehistory.

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