Culture : Spelunker's Passion Pays Off : Jean-Marie Chauvet and his small team of cave-diggers 'hit the jackpot,' finding a cache of Stone Age art.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jean-Marie Chauvet is no scientist and certainly no archeologist. In fact, he left school at the age of 14, worked as a stonemason, a hardware-store clerk and, finally, as a caretaker on the government payroll.

But the 42-year-old Frenchman has devoted nearly every weekend for the past three decades to his life's passion: digging inside the sheer rock faces of the Ardeche Gorge in southern France in the faint hope of discovering a path back through time in dark, hidden caves.

Thousands of spelunkers like Chauvet have spent years exploring the many caves of Europe, trying to become the first modern man or woman to lay eyes on, say, a particular fragment of rock art or, perhaps, a set of Stone Age footprints.

"It's always the unknown that leads us," Chauvet explained. "When you're walking along in a cave, you don't know what you're going to find. Will it end around the next corner, or will you discover something fantastic?"

So it was that Chauvet and two friends were digging inside a cave near here one Sunday evening in December, seeking the source of a steady, warm draft of air. They opened a narrow hole, wriggled through, crawled a few feet along a passage and then dropped 30 feet by ladder to a soft floor.

As their flashlights scanned the walls, they were rendered speechless.

"I kept thinking, 'We're dreaming. We're dreaming,' " Chauvet remembered.

"But," he added, shaking his head, "for a spelunker like me, this was the summit."

Or, as Jean Clottes, the leading French authority on prehistoric art, put it later: "They hit the jackpot."

What Chauvet and his colleagues discovered was one of the more important, best preserved and most unusual prehistoric finds of the century, Clottes and other experts now say. Some experts say the discovery is as significant a find as the caves of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain, both of which hold stunning examples of Paleolithic art.

Scientists will be studying the Chauvet Cave, as it is already being called, for years. It will be some time before a full inventory of its contents is made; some parts have yet to be explored.

But already French scientists say the cave's chambers, which together measure the length of five football fields, contain more than 300 paintings and engravings, dating back 17,000 to 21,000 years.

There are shockingly beautiful renderings, in black, red and ocher earth pigments, of woolly rhinoceroses, cave bears, lions, mammoths, horses and even a panther and a hyena.

"As I studied them, I realized I was in the presence of the work of a great artist," said Clottes, a scientific adviser to the French Culture Ministry and president of the International Committee of Rock Art. "It was like finding the work of an unknown Leonardo da Vinci. In prehistoric times, as now, great artists were rare."

The cave also contains the skeletons of at least 40 cave bears, a seven-foot-tall species that disappeared 12,000 years ago. Many of their foot-long skulls are visible just above the thick layers of calcite formations that have accumulated over the millennia.

Like so many such discoveries, the Chauvet Cave raises many questions for which there are no answers--and may never be answers.

What, for example, was intended by the artists? There are no signs that anyone lived in the cave, though there are the flinty remnants of fires, suggesting that the cave was used for ceremonies or meetings.

It is clear from scratches on the walls that the cave bears lived there before the artists arrived. And a bear skull is perched on a stone in the middle of one room, suggesting a Stone Age altar.

"My hunch--and it is only a hunch--is that the artists came to this cave and found the bear skeletons," Clottes said. "Perhaps they were impressed by the skeletons and considered the cave to be full of the bears' spirit, a powerful cave.

"They may have thought that, by painting some bears and other dangerous animals, they were capturing the animals' spirits, adding power in their own lives," the art expert added.

Cave paintings are not unusual in Europe. An estimated 300 prehistoric caves have been discovered so far on the Continent, and a few have more paintings than the Chauvet Cave. Others have older engravings.

But several things make the Chauvet Cave significant, experts say.

The quality of the drawings is extremely high, suggesting the presence of one or more great artists, perhaps working thousands of years apart. And the cave's discovery indicates that this region of Provence, about an hour's drive northwest of Avignon, may be hiding even more important collections of rock art.

The most unusual aspect of the Chauvet Cave, though, is the artists' choice of subjects.

Most of the rock art discovered previously has depicted animals that Stone Age man dominated, killed for food or used as beasts of burden.

This cave contains some of those animals, but it also includes larger numbers than ever seen before of rhinos, lions, bears and other beasts feared by humans.

The 40 black paintings of woolly rhino, a long-extinct animal, are twice the number that have been found in all the caves of Europe.

"It means that the myths of the people living here were significantly different from those living in the Pyrenees (between Spain and France) or the Dordogne region" in France, Clottes said. "How was it different? I wish I knew."

All but forgotten in the worldwide fascination over the discovery have been the discoverers themselves. That's something that Chauvet accepts, as every spelunker must, albeit with some disappointment.

"We have given it as a present, a bit of cake to all humanity," Chauvet said. As he spoke, he leaned against his 10-year-old beige Renault. In the back seat were cables, maps of caves and boots still caked with cave mud.

"Of course, now we have no more control," he added. "The government has taken the cave away from us, which is normal. But no one can ever take away our first vision of the cave. That's our reward."

The discovery was, in fact, a group effort.

Chauvet's fellow spelunkers, Eliette Deschamps and Christian Hillaire, decided to give the credit to Chauvet, in honor of his three decades in the caves of the Ardeche Gorge.

The three met, naturally, while digging in a cave with other friends nearly five years ago.

Since then, they have been an inseparable team, spending their weekends exploring and mapping the caves of the Ardeche, a windy line on the map just north of the famed vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone.

Chauvet knows the area well. He lives nearby, with his wife and grown son, and he was born in this region, the son of an auto mechanic and a part-time maid.

He explored his first cave, at age 12, with his brother, and he still remembers the excitement and fear he felt as they advanced, step by step, until one day they found themselves in huge rooms inside the cave.

There was no art, "but the feeling was just fantastic," he recalled recently. "Since then, I've always had this bug. It's never left me."

After working 20 years as a stonemason, exploring caves in his spare time, Chauvet qualified a few years ago as a cave caretaker for the Culture Ministry.

Now, during the week, he tends to the 26 caves where rock art has been found in these parts.

Of those 26 caves, Chauvet himself helped discover 11.

The caves, some of which are open to the public, and the natural beauty of the region draw 1.5 million tourists a year, mostly in the summer, when amateur cave explorers are out in force.

But Chauvet's team pokes into caves year-round.

Deschamps runs a vineyard with her husband a few miles away and has been a member of spelunking clubs for 20 years. Hillaire, the third team member, also lives in the area and works as a security equipment technician.

"We are a family," Chauvet explained. "If one of us can't come on the weekend, then we don't go. That's why we find a lot of things. It's more than a friendship. We share this passion of discovery."

The trio approach spelunking, a hobby known in French as speleologie, with hours of preparation and a lifetime of knowledge.

They draw maps of the miles of passages they have uncovered, and carefully note the presence of drafts--the most important indicator that there is another cave or passageway lurking behind the walls.

It can be dangerous work. Two spelunkers drowned in a cave lake in the Dordogne a few weeks ago. And spending hours in dark, cramped spaces is not for the claustrophobic. But spelunkers overcome their fears with dreams of discovery.

In fact, Chauvet's team found the stream of air that signaled the presence of the now-famous cave months ago, last summer.

Lighting a mosquito coil, which produces a spiral of smoke, they saw that the draft was coming from a tiny hole in a cascade of rubble.

They dug for a few days but lost interest and moved on to other places.

When they returned, in December, they noticed that the draft was stronger and noticeably warmer than the outside temperatures. They knew the cave was in a favorable area because they had found signs of prehistoric art in caves several dozen yards away. So they decided to finish the job.

As they cleared the fallen stones, the draft increased in intensity, sending the smoke from the mosquito coil sideways. The opening turned out to be at the top of the Chauvet Cave. Experts figure the original entrance was blocked by geologic shifts thousands of years ago.

"It took us quite a while before what we had seen in there began to sink in," Chauvet remembered. "It was only after we left, at 2 in the morning, that we opened a bottle of champagne."

Chauvet and his colleagues kept the discovery to themselves at first.

They closed off the opening with stones, even adding dust to make them look undisturbed.

"It had stayed there for 20,000 years without being discovered, so we weren't too scared that someone else would come along," he said.

While sipping champagne, they pondered their options. They could either block it up again and not tell anybody--or reveal it to the world.

"We realized we had no right not to declare it," Chauvet said. "The discovery was too big, and it was going to require highly technical and scientific study, something we couldn't do."

They returned the next weekend to study the cave again, taking a few photographs and laying a narrow, plastic walkway to disturb as little of the ground as possible. Being spelunkers, they wanted a long, last personal look before telling the world.

After resealing the opening, Chauvet reported the cave to the French government and, the next week, his team led Clottes and half a dozen other French scientists into the cave. Most had to remove everything but their overalls to fit into the opening.

"You know," said Clottes, the rock art expert, "it's a lot of fun discovering a cave. But you can spend your whole life looking through caves and not find any prehistoric art. I used to do it for fun when I was younger. But now I get called in when one is found. It's much easier."

The discoverers have now been replaced in the limelight by the experts. They can no longer enter the cave at their whim, and the French government says the public will probably never be allowed into this cave, so fragile is the environment.

That's OK with Chauvet and his team. They have work to do.

"Now we go off to look elsewhere," Chauvet said. "This cave tells us that there must be others, with other treasures. And there are so many that we haven't yet explored."

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