In comparison to geological timescales, human documentation of geological events only extends back into a mere fraction of the Earth’s past: the oldest-known depiction of a volcanic eruption is found in Turkey, in a mural dating back to 6,600 BCE. But according to a new paper published in the journal PLoS ONE, that date may have just been pushed back even further, by a scene painted in France’s Chauvet-Pont D’Arc cave.

Discovered in 1994, Chauvet-Pont D’Arc cave is the home to an extensive gallery of Paleolithic cave art, created over a number of periods between 23,000 and 36,000 years ago. The illustrations in this cave are the earliest known examples of human art, documenting the evolution of mankind’s artistic expression.

Amongst the paintings in the Megaloceros gallery, named for a depiction of a now-extinct giant deer on one of it’s walls, is a series of spray-like paintings, that University of Paris-Saclay geoscientist Sebastien Nomade says may depict an ancient volcanic eruption that would have occurred at the same time as the caves were occupied. The drawing of the Megaloceros that overlays the spray-paintings has been dated to between 36,000 to 37,000 years ago, right in the middle of the period when the nearby Bas-Vivarais volcanic field was erupting. If Nomade’s hypothesis is correct, this would make the drawings the earliest known documentation of a volcanic eruption.

Nomade describes what the scene would look like, to someone at the Chauvet caves watching the eruptions: “You just have to climb the small hill on top of Chauvet, and looking north you see the volcanoes. During the night you could see them glowing and you could hear the sound of the volcanic eruption.

“There’s no way anybody could prove that it is a volcano that they depicted, but for us it’s the hypothesis which is the most probable.” 

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