The Tracks In Chauvet Cave

by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.



The two sets of tracks were side by side.  One of them was  that of a young child, and the other of a wolf.

What if I were to tell you that these tracks were found deep within Chauvet Cave, high above the Ardeche River in France, a cave, which contains some of the most glorious Stone Age art ever found? Some of the paintings on the walls of Chauvet date back to at least the Upper Paleolithic period, some 32,000 years ago. Among them are unforgettable scenes of mammoths, rhinoceroses, ungulates of all kinds, and even a leopard. One of the most striking scenes is that of a group of nervous, hard breathing horses, with the adjacent wall showing a pride of maneless lions intently stalking them.

Chauvet Horses

The Nervous Horses

My story begins a few nights ago, when my wife and I were viewing Werner Herzog’s film, “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” on NetFlix. The film is a documentary about Chauvet. Herzog and his crew were the first non-scientists or technicians allowed in the environmentally fragile cave. As the film crew, shooting as they went, descended deep within the cavern, we were enchanted by the beauty of the cave itself as well as the artistry of the painters. The cave, with its paintings had afterward been sealed like a time capsule, due to a rock fall some 20,000 years ago. It was rediscovered in 1996.

The entire cave is about eighteen hundred feet long, and consists of several rooms, some large, some small, connected by passages. Most of the rooms are filled with stalactites and stalagmites interspersed with curtain like sheets of sparkling limestone. At one point the camera panned along the cave’s dusty floor, showing bones of various animals strewn haphazardly across it. We also saw numerous cave bear skulls (Ursus spelaeus).

And then, within the stygian depths of the cave, the camera came upon the tracks of the boy and the wolf. I forgot everything else at that point and focused on these like a laser.

Maneless lions, Stalking Horses?

Chauvet Lions Painting

To understand my fascination with these tracks, I need to tell you a little about myself.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and spent most of my adult life among the bricks and cement of New York City. I earned a Ph.D. in Genetics, and worked in a laboratory right in the middle of the Big Apple. Despite my upbringing and profession, I always had a great love for the out of doors and have spent a great deal of my spare time in the woods and on rivers.

In the nineteen eighties, following our bliss, as Joseph Campbell would say, my wife Lanie and I took our first class in primitive skills with Tom Brown, the noted wilderness survival teacher. We went on to participate in several of his tracking and wilderness awareness classes, and taught in his school. Since then, Lanie and I have created various programs and primitive skills classes ourselves.

One of our passions has been tracking. We even tracked weasels under the snow in Manhattan’s Central Park and pheasants in Inwood Park at the northern tip of Manhattan.

After we moved out West, I became interested in protection of endangered wildlife, especially the wolf. Living here in the Idaho Panhandle, a few miles from Canada, I have learned a great deal about the biology and behavior of wolves, and we have even tracked them in Yellowstone National Park.

Herzog, who served both as director and narrator of the film, again panned his camera over the wolf and human tracks. Yes, I could see that they were side by side, and was able to get an idea of their sizes and gaits (i.e. manner and pattern of walking), but the camera was too far away to see much detail. Herzog posed some provocative questions. “Was the wolf stalking the boy?” he asked, “or were they walking side by side as companions”? He also pointed out that the tracks may have been made simultaneously or a thousand or more years may have separated them in time.

Tracks can tell fascinating stories if you know how to read them, but these were enigmatic. Herzog’s questions intrigued me and set me to thinking.

Unfortunately, the chances of anyone ever inspecting and measuring the tracks from in close are not good. Herzog was filming from a metal walkway, laid down some years ago, about ten feet from the tracks, and he was not allowed to step off the walkway and get closer to them. Too bad. Although it is possible to track at a distance, and I once witnessed Tom Brown spot and identify fox tracks across a pond from him, you can tell much more about the animal or person who made the tracks from in close. However, the representatives of the French government, who control the cave, have “rules of engagement” that preclude anyone from seeing a lot of it at close quarters, for fear that they would disturb or destroy something vital. This is especially true of the cave’s floor, which has a thick layer of dust on it, which they do not want to disturb.

This situation was frustrating to me as a tracker, used to examining tracks on my hands and knees, and seeing subtle aspects of them that give clues, even about the animal’s state of mind and intentions. None of that was of course possible from such a distance, but still some information could be obtained from the quick look we were afforded.  Besides, it does have the advantage of leaving me free to speculate about the tracks without fear of contradiction by uncomfortable facts that may be uncovered later. In this I am in the common position of an Anthropologist, who my son, a science journalist, says use 5% facts and 95% speculation.

So, freed from those putative facts, I plunge into my own “cave of forgotten memories.”

First, you should understand that careful exploration of Chauvet had previously shown that although cave bears and other animals had obviously used it, no human ever lived in this cave. It was probably entered by humans only for the purpose of making the paintings, and using them for rituals and initiations. The child’s tracks however, were found deep in the cave. What was a young child doing there?

The nether regions of the cave were normally pitch black. Until recently, there was no light in those parts of the cave except intermittently, coming from torches carried by humans. Carbon traces from these torches have been found on the walls, which have been carbon dated to 28,000 years ago.

Due to the necessity for light, it is almost certain that the perhaps eight-year-old boy or girl was not alone in the cave. The child must have been accompanied, at the very least, by one adult. Given the youngster’s age, whoever accompanied him or her, was undoubtedly well known to the child, and was most likely a parent. So, I think that we may all give a sigh of relief, confident that the wolf did not “get” the youngster. Adding to this inductive reasoning is the fact that no child’s bones have been found in the cave either. This should give us even more assurance about his or her welfare.

As for Herzog’s question of whether the child and wolf were there at the same or different times, I am fairly confident about that situation too. First, the cave is basically dry. It is situated high above the present course of the Ardeche River, so that is likely that the only water that could have reached it was through a spring or springs trickling along tree roots, through the rock. We know that the tracks were made at least twenty thousand years ago. That is guaranteed by that rock fall, which sealed the cave until its rediscovery in 1996. The preservation of the tracks for at least the intervening 8,000 years, attests to the fact that no water, mud, or flood had ever reached them during that very long time.

Because of that, it appears that the wet conditions, necessary for making these tracks, must have been a very rare occurrence in the history of the cave. For these reasons, I feel pretty sure that the wolf and the boy had not been walking the cave thousands of years apart. That would have been too great a coincidence. Most likely, they strolled together, or had been there within a few days of each other.

I lean toward the companion theory for several reasons. For one thing, even the cursory sight we were afforded, showed me that both the wolf and the child were just walking along at a normal pace. There was no sign that either of them were running, galloping, or had even lengthened their strides. There was no sign of fear or panic on the part of the child.

Another aspect that I noticed was that the tracks never crossed each other or overlapped. If the tracks were made at different times, it is likely that they would have coincided, at least in part. After all, the cave is fairly narrow, and places where someone could walk are quite confined. There would not have been much room for their tracks to not come in contact except if they had been walking, aware of each other, side by side.

Furthermore, from what I know of wolves, if this one had been stalking the child, it would have literally walked in his tracks. For example, when a wolf pack walks in the snow, they step in each other’s tracks and do so with remarkable precision. This has the effect of breaking the trail, making it easier for the other wolves to follow the leader. Groups of human cross country skiers and snow shoers do this too, and for the same reason. It saves energy.

In this behavior, by the way, the wolf differs from human trackers, who on the contrary, are careful to not step in the tracks they are following. They do this as a courtesy to others, who also may want to examine and follow this set of tracks. Wolves apparently are not as courteous, but are more pragmatic than we are.

This wolf behavior reminds me of the flying wedges of geese, who essentially are “drafting“ the leader as racing cars do. The following geese switch places with each other from time to time in a systematic fashion so that they each take turns leading.  This has the effect of distributing the hard task of leading fairly equally among the flock.

I do not know if members of a wolf pack tracking prey, change places from time to time, but I have been assured by wolf biologists that wolves definitely track their prey, thus showing that they understand that tracks signify that particular types of animals have passed that way. For instance, they would not waste their time and energy tracking a grizzly bear.

By the way, I wonder if wolves can distinguish fresh or recent tracks from older ones? A good human tracker can “age” tracks visually, just by examining them closely. Such an ability would certainly be of value to wolves, because, once again, following old or “stale” tracks (especially if they were a thousand years old!) would be a waste of their energy. Conservation of energy is one of the prime characteristics of wild animals’ behavior. Your pet Labrador retriever might fetch a stick out of the water for you dozens of times, but you can bet that you would not be able to get a wolf to do that.

A wolf can probably track both visually and olfactorially, having a much keener and more discriminating sense of smell than we have.

To return from this digression to the question at hand, it seems to me that the parallel tracks indicate that the child and the wolf were aware of each other’s presence.

Whether they were companions is a more difficult question to answer. Present day dogs are the descendants of wolves, but the information we have at present, mostly from DNA studies, indicates that the transition from wolf to dog took place in at least two different areas of the world at about the same time, some 12,000 years ago. One of these birthplaces was in China and the other in the Near East, both far from Chauvet cave in the Ardeche region of south-central France. So, both in space and time, it seems unlikely that this transition was taking place near Chauvet at the time the tracks were made there.

Nevertheless, we must consider, for our purposes, that the transition from wolf to dog must have started, not with animal husbandry, but with the taming of wolves. This was most likely to have occurred by humans stealing or removing cubs from a wolf den. I know of no instance of an adult or even yearling wolf pup being tamed by humans. One of the most striking characteristics of wolves is their fierce wildness.

Aesop’s fable of the Wolf and the Dog indicates that this wolfy independence was a known and admired fact, way back in Roman times.

However, wolf breeders know that if they obtain a pup early enough, it will regard them as its parents and will bond to them for life. Present day hunter gatherers and other Earth based peoples are keen observers of their natural surroundings, and especially of animals. The wonderful stories and myths that have come down to us from Native Americans testify to that knowledge.

We can assume with confidence therefore that the Cro-Magnons of Chauvet were very familiar with this aspect of wolf behavior, and could have manipulated it to their favor, perhaps using such tamed wolves as guards or even aids in hunting, as present day Botswana Bushmen do with wild dogs.

Another important consideration is that human beings are not the normal prey of wolves. There have been only one or two authenticated wolf attacks on humans on this continent in the last two hundred years. This is true at least of North America. Admittedly, Of course I cannot vouch for this situation with respect to Paleolithic Europe.

All of these bits and pieces of information and speculation have painted a picture for me of a child and a wolf, wandering together through Chauvet cave while the adults were painting other pictures. It is a nice image, and I aim to keep it unless not yet revealed facts arise to contradict it.

Chauvet cave is a marvel indeed, opening to us not only a window on the considerable artistic abilities of Paleolithic man, but also on his inner life, and perhaps in the case of the child and wolf, on his connections to the natural world.

I suspect that the story of the tracks in Chauvet cave will always remain mysterious. After all, we are talking about events that happened a long time ago. Despite our careful analysis, it is still 5% facts and 95% speculation. Perhaps that is what it should be. Sometimes a mystery is more fun than its solution.

The Rhinoceroses of Chauvet

Wall paintings in Chauvet, showing two rhinoceroses