To reach the only place in the world where cave paintings of prehistoric marine life have been found, archaeologists have to dive from southern France to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.
Then they must cross a 137 m (yard) natural tunnel into the rock, passing through the mouth of the cave until they reach a vast cavern, much of which is now submerged.
Three people died trying to find this “underwater Lascaux” as rumors spread to match a cave in southwestern France that completely changed the way our Stone Age ancestors looked .
Lascaux – which Picasso saw in 1940 – proved that the urge to make art is as old as humanity itself.
The life of archaeologist Luke Vanrell has surfaced inside Koskar Cave for the second time and seen astonishing images of it. Even now, 30 years later, he remembers the “beauty blow”.
But the cave and its treasures, some more than 30,000 years old, are in grave danger. Climate change and water and plastic pollution are threatening to wipe out the art prehistoric men and women created over 15 millennia.
Since the sudden 12-centimeter (nearly-five-inch) rise in sea level in 2011, Wanrell and his colleagues have been in a race against time to see what they can do.
Every year the high water mark rises by a few more millimeters, which eats away at the ancient paintings and carvings a little more.
– prehistoric wonders –
Vanrell and his lead diver-archaeologists are working faster and faster to locate the last corners of the 2,500-square-metre (27,000-square-foot) grotto to locate its Neolithic wonders before they are lost Can you
A nearly life-size recreation of Cascar Cave, a few kilometers (miles) away in Marseille, will open this week.
AFP joined the dive team earlier this year as they raced to complete digital mapping for a 3D reconstruction of the cave.
About 600 signs, drawings and carvings on the vast cave walls 37 meters below the azure waters of the breathtaking Calanques Inlets east of Marseilles – some aquatic life never seen before in cave paintings.
“We envisioned bringing the cave to the surface,” said diver Bertrand Chasley, who is in charge of the operation to digitize the cave.
“When it is finished, our virtual Cosquer Cave – which is accurate to within millimeters – will be indispensable to researchers and archaeologists who cannot physically go inside.”
– children’s hands –
Archaeologist Michel Olive told AFP that the cave was “10 kilometers from the shore” when it was in use. “At that time we were in the middle of an ice age and the sea was 135 meters lower than it is today”.
From the dive boat, Olive, who is in charge of studying the cave, draws with his finger a vast plain where the Mediterranean is now. “The entrance to the cave was on a small hill to the south over a meadow protected by rocks. It was a very good place for the people of prehistoric times,” he said.
Cave walls reveal that the coastal plain was full of wildlife – horses, deer, bison, ibex, prehistoric aurochs cows, saiga antelope, but also seals, penguins, fish and a cat and a bear.
The 229 figures depicted on the walls cover 13 different species.
But Neolithic men and women also left their mark on the walls, with as many as 69 red or black handprints left accidentally, including three children.
And that doesn’t count the hundreds of geometric signs and eight sexual depictions of male and female body parts.
What stands out about the cave is that it was occupied, Wanrell said, “33,000 to 18,500 years ago”.
The sharpness of its graphics “places Cascar among the four largest cave art sites in the world, along with Altamira and Chauvet in Lascaux, Spain,” which is also in southern France.
“And because the walls of the cave that are under water today were probably once decorated, nothing compares to its size in Europe,” he said.
Koskar’s discovery is also “addictive”, the 62-year-old insisted, with a gleam in his eye. “Some people who are working on the site get sad if they don’t go down in a while. They miss their favorite bison,” he smiled.
For VanRell, diving down is like a “journey in itself.” That feeling of place “seems into you”.
– Search and Death –
Henry Kosker, a professional deep-sea diver who runs a diving school, said he found the cave by chance in 1985, just 15 meters from bare limestone cliffs.
Slowly he dared to push back and forth in a 137-metre-long crack in the rock, until one day he came out of a cavity cut by the sea.
“I came into a dark cave. You’re getting wet, you’re coming out of the mud and you’re moving around. It took me a few rounds to get right around it,” he told AFP.
“Initially, I didn’t see anything with my lamp and then I found a handprint,” said the diver.
While the law dictates that such discoveries be immediately declared to the authorities so that they can be protected, Cosker reported the news to himself and a few close friends.
“Nobody owned the cave. When you find a good place for mushrooms, you don’t tell everyone about it, do you?” They said.
But rumors of this aquatic Lascaux attracted other divers, and three died in the tunnel leading to the cave. Marked by tragedies, Koskar owned up to his discovery in 1991. The cave that bears his name is now closed by a railing. Only scientific teams are allowed inside.
Dozens of archeological research missions have been undertaken to study and preserve the site, and to create an inventory of the paintings and carvings. But extraction of resources began when Chauvet, which is much easier to access, was discovered in the Ardche region in 1994.
– Climate change damage –
It was only in 2011 that things began to change when Olive and VanRell raised the alarm due to a rapid rise in sea level, which caused irreparable damage to some images.
“It was a catastrophe, and it really shook us psychologically,” Wanrell recalled, especially of the heavy damage to the horse portrait.
“All the data shows that sea levels are rising faster and faster,” said geologist Stephanie Touran, a specialist in prehistoric painted caves at France’s Historical Monuments Research Laboratory.
“The sea rises and falls into the cavity, with variations in climate, washing away walls and expelling soils and materials that are rich in information,” she said.
Microplastic pollution is making paintings worse.
In the face of such an existential threat, the French government has launched a major push to record everything about the cave, with archaeologist Cyril Montoya tasked with trying to better understand the prehistoric communities that used it. Is.
– Mystery –
One of the mysteries he and his team will try to solve will be a cloth mark on the cave wall, which may confirm the theory that hunters were making clothes when the cave was occupied.
Pictures of horses with long manes also raise another big question. Wanrell suspects that this may indicate they may have already been domesticated, at least partly because wild horses have short manes, which gallop through bushes and vegetation. A diagram of what a harness might be might support his theory.
Areas preserved under a layer of translucent calcite also show “remains of coal”, Montoya believes, which could have been used for painting or heating or lighting. He would have burned the coal over the stalagmites, turning them into “lamps to illuminate the caverns”.
But the central question of what the cave was used for remains a mystery, Olive acknowledged.
While archaeologists agree that the people did not live there, Olive said that some believe it was a “sanctuary, or a meeting place, or somewhere they mined moonshine, (limestone)”. The white matter on the walls of the cave which was used for the body paint and background. For painting and carving.”
– replica –
The idea of replicating the site was first mooted soon after the cave was discovered. But it wasn’t until 2016 that the regional government decided it would take place in a renovated modern building in Marseille next to the Museem, which houses the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations at the mouth of the city’s old port.
Using 3D data collected by archaeological teams, the 23 million euro ($24 million) replica is slightly smaller than the original cave, but contains copies of all the paintings and 90 percent of the carvings, said Laurent Delbos of Clebert Rossillon. Said, the company that copied Chauvet Cave in 2015.
Artist Gilles Tosello is one of those craftsmen who have been copying paintings using the same charcoal and tools that were used by their Stone Age pioneers.
“Prehistoric artists wrote the score a long time ago and now I am playing it,” he said while sitting in the dark in his studio, a detail of a horse lit in front of him on the wall of the reconstructed cave.
Clearly inspired, he said he admired the great mastery and “spontaneity” of his prehistoric predecessors, whose confident brushes clearly “came from great wisdom and experience. The freedom of gesture and certainty to amaze me.” never stops,” he said.