Replica cave saves unique prehistoric wall paintings in France from extinction through climate change

The on dry land replica of the underwater Grotte Casquer makes the preshistoric art accessible for the general public

The team of artists has been working for nearly two years on the replica of the underwater cave. Image: screenshot NOS

When hearing the words “French cave drawings”, many will immediately think of the famous cave of Lascaux. However, France now has a new replica of an underwater cave, featuring hundreds of prehistoric wall paintings. As the Grotte Cosquer near Marseille, named after its discoverer Henri Cosquer, is being threatened by climate change, experts acted to at least save the impression of the site and make it more accessible for everyone.

The images are expected to disappear as a result of sea-level rise and marine pollution, Complete France reported. The cave was already closed off to the public out of fear of harm, as some paintings have already suffered damage or vanished completely. With the opening of the Cosquer Méditerranée museum, visitors can experience how the cave was discovered and explore the images, which include horses, bison and even penguins, themselves.

Perfectly preserved

The entrance of the Grotte Cosquer. Image: Unclebarned (Wikimedia) CC BY-SA 3.0

More than thirty years ago, cave diver Henri Cosquer accidentally discovered a large hole during a dive. He swam in it and after more than a hundred meters came to the top in a room full of drawings of horses, bison and even penguins. Because no one initially believed Cosquer, on the following dive a colleague joined him who, in addition to being a cave diver, was also an expert on prehistory. He confirmed Cosquer’s discovery. It is estimated that the more than 500 images in the cave are between 19,000 and 30,000 years old.

The Grotte Cosquer is therefore an important cultural treasure for our knowledge of that time, said Luc Amkreutz, curator of Prehistory at the National Museum of Antiquities and professor of Public Archeology at Leiden University. “What you can see in this cave is only visible in a few other places in Europe, namely: perfectly preserved cultural expressions of people who lived tens of thousands of years ago”, he told Dutch news agency NOS.

“It teaches us something about what they saw around them and what they thought was important. For example, the animals depicted were economically important, but also played a symbolic role in rituals. Because the cave is so deep underwater, so almost no one can visit, everything is almost perfectly preserved.”

Enter prehistoric times

A stencil of a human hand in the Grotte Casquer, dated 27,000. It is one of the oldest paintings in the world. Image: SiefkinDR (Wikimedia) CC BY-SA 3.0

As the sea levels continue to rise in the coming years, the prehistoric drawings will probably be permanently erased in the coming years, says cave diver Rick Van Dijk. “The higher the salt water rises, the more it will eat at the wall drawings. In addition, more rainfall also causes changes in caves deep underwater. For example, more water can flow through with great force, suddenly replacing stones that have never been there before. Sometimes a cave becomes permanently inaccessible.”

As it was difficult to reach the cave in the first place, the replica cave and exhibition give non-divers the opportunity to experience the Grotte Cosquer themselves. The team of artists responsible for recreating the cave have been working on the replica since the autumn of 2020. The replica was built based on information cave divers gathered in the original over the years. Using special equipment, they mapped out as many details as possible of the 2,500 square meter space. The replica is slightly smaller at 1750 square meters.

Inside, copies of all the murals can be seen, and stalagmites and stalactites have been placed as precisely as possible. Just like in the original cave, the replica also contains water. In addition, the museum pays attention to the time in which the drawings were created, for example with a large collection of counterfeit, prehistoric animals. Those who want to know more about cave diving and namesake Henri Cosquer can also visit the museum.

No time to travel to Marseille to see the paintings yourself? Check out the video from France24 below.

Sources: Complete France, NOS