The cave 36,000 years ago

Who were these humans?

These humans were Aurignacians. The roots of this word come from the village of Aurignac (in Haute Garonne, South-Western France), where traces of Aurignacian culture have been found. It was during this period that Homo sapiens (us!) arrived in Europe, and met their Neanderthal cousins who had been here for nearly 300,000 years. The term Cro-Magnon is also used to describe Homo sapiens, although this is becoming increasingly rare.

What kind of environment did they live in?

The landscape around the cave was morphologically identical to the current landscape. At the time, the Pont-d’Arc already straddled the Ardèche River and Estre Combe, whose river had already disappeared a long time ago. Thus the Aurignacians could observe the steep limestone slopes of Estre Combe, and walk around in the valley that we see today. The main difference is due to the climate. Over 30,000 years ago, an icecap covered northern Europe. In some parts, it was 3,000 m thick (in Scandinavia). A plain connected the British Isles and northern France. The Rhine River wound around the middle of the plain, and the Thames and the Seine were its tributaries. Toward the south, the Mediterranean Sea was 120 m lower than its current level. These differences were due to the glacial period called Würm. The flora and fauna were thus very different from today. Mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, cave bears and lions, aurochs, musk oxes and panthers were commonly found here. They lived in the vegetation of the steppe.

The cave is near the Ardèche River and Pont-d’Arc, a grand stone arch that is 53 metres high

Did they live in the cave?

No. The Aurignacians were hunter-gatherers. They were nomads and lived off of hunting and gathering plants. As such, they didn’t live in the caves. But they went there often to decorate the walls and to depict spiritual myths there. However, there were some exceptions. There are very few caves that have structures which have been identified as being inhabited spaces. The Arcy sur Cure cave (in Burgundy), dating from the Middle Palaeolithic Age, is one example of this. Structures placed in a circular fashion, with hearths, have been found at the bottom of its cavity.

The Ardèche Gorges house a wealth of painted caves, with 27 cavities that have been identified