36,000 years ago, a glacial period was in progress and the landscape consisted of a mosaic of steppes and tundra. These cold, dry expanses enabled the expansion of large herds of herbivores such as reindeer, bison, horse, ibex and woolly mammoth. There were also woolly rhinoceros and megaloceros – large cervidae the size of modern elk and with antlers that could have a span of over 3.5m!

A diversified fauna

This environment was also inhabited by carnivores: foxes (red and polar), wolverines, wolves, panthers, lions, hyenas and cave bears. Of course, the remaining fauna also included rodents such as the marmot and collared lemming, birds including the snowy owl, grouse, ptarmigan and yellow-billed chough, not to forget fish, reptiles, amphibians etc. Some species have since completely disappeared, such as mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, megaloceros, bear, lion and cave hyena. When the climate warmed up, other animals such as reindeer, muskox, polar fox and wolverine migrated towards more northerly regions that were better adapted to their way of life, such as the High North.

An interpreted fauna

The bestiary represented in the paintings and engravings of the Chauvet Cave partly corresponds to this fauna. However, this is by no means a naturalistic art depicting the everyday environment, but rather the representation of symbolic animals inspired by reality according to a cultural choice dictated by society. The prevalence of the numerous felines, mammoths and rhinoceroses depicted at Chauvet seems to be unique to the Aurignacian. In other cultures, the most common animals seem to be bison, as in the Gravettian, the horse/bison pairing, or reindeer in the Magdalenian.

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