Deep in the valleys of southern France, a researcher is studying ancient footprints in a prehistoric cave. But as he follows the tracks of a child, he begins to notice a surprising detail. Thousands of years ago, something walked on four legs beside this human. In fact, the scientist is about to discover a shocking revelation about mankind’s relationship with animals across the ages.
The story of this incredible find began back in December 1994, when Jean-Marie Chauvet was exploring the Ardeche Gorge near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc in France. His day job was as a government caretaker. However, Chauvet would like to do something a little different in his spare time. In fact, he liked to roam the countryside on the hunt for long-forgotten caves.
Then, on December 18, Chauvet struck gold. While investigating the rocky cliffs of the gorge with two friends, he felt a draft of warm air. In order to take a closer look, the trio managed to force open a small hole.
Chauvet and his companions climbed inside and found themselves in a cramped passage. After crawling along on their hands and knees for a short distance, they came to a sharp drop. Bravely, they descended by ladder 30 feet into the darkness before reaching the floor of a cave.
Soon, it became clear that their curiosity was to pay off in spades. As they shone their torches around the walls, what they saw blew them away. “I kept thinking, ‘We’re dreaming. We’re dreaming,’” Chauvet recalled in a 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Times.
In fact, what the friends had discovered would turn out to be one of the century’s most important prehistoric finds. The cave, which was soon dubbed Chauvet Cave after its discoverer, was covered in stunning paintings. All along the walls were depictions of ancient animals, carefully rendered in earth pigments.
When researchers moved in to study the caves, they determined that the paintings could be as much as 32,000 years old. Unusually for prehistoric art, the works depicted fearsome predators such as lions and bears. Alongside the pictures, meanwhile, were the skulls and footprints of cave bears, a species that has been extinct for 12,000 years.
Although archaeologists don’t think that humans ever lived in the cave, there is evidence that they used it for ritual purposes. In fact, a cave-bear skull was discovered on what is believed to be a primitive altar. According to experts, this could have been part of an attempt to capture the spirits of the dangerous predators.
But it isn’t just bears that have a strong presence in Chauvet cave. In 1999, Michel-Alain Garcia, a prehistorian from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Nanterre, France, made some startling discoveries. Amazingly, he found a series of ancient footprints thought to date back between 20,000 and 30,000 years – and they came accompanied by a surprising revelation.
These tracks, which at the time were considered the oldest human footprints in the world, were thought to have belonged to a young boy around eight years old. According to Garcia, he was four and a half feet in height. His prints stretch for around 150 feet across the cave and, most tellingly, often cross paths with the tracks of wolves and bears.
In fact, Garcia believes that some of the footprints show the boy and a canid animal walking side-by-side. Moreover, he has noted that the tracks display an unusually short digit in the middle of the paw – a trait commonly associated with domestic dogs.
Apparently, the tracks indicate that the boy was walking rather than running, suggesting that he was not fleeing in fear. At one point, he even appears to stop and attend to his torch. According to experts, charcoal from the light source can be dated back an incredible 26,000 years.
Could these prints be early evidence of our special relationship with man’s best friend? If so, they represent a fascinating development in a period of our history that is little understood – just how did the wild wolf evolve into the docile, loving companions that form an important part of so many modern families?
Today, the oldest undisputed evidence of joint human and dog burials dates back some 14,700 years. However, many experts have theorized that the relationship is far older. Indeed, the footprints in the Chauvet cave predate this discovery by more than 10,000 years.
According to Garcia, the discovery of the two sets of footprints may mean that the boy and the dog had worked together to explore the cave. Interestingly, this may also explain why there were no paintings of dogs or wolves among the images of predators that adorned the walls.
Anne Pike-Tay, a Professor of Anthropology at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, believes that a close relationship between dogs and humans may explain the lack of images. “What if dogs were put in the ‘human family’ category as an extension of the hunter,” a 2009 article from American Scientist quotes her as saying, “and like humans, warranted no (or very few) painted or engraved descriptions?”
In his 2011 book How the Dog Became the Dog: From Wolves to Our Best Friends, meanwhile, author Mark Derr came to some slightly different conclusions. According to him, modern trackers often struggle to tell the difference between wolf and dog prints even when they are fresh. With 26,000-year-old tracks, he believes the task to be far more challenging.
Instead, Derr proposed that the prints were that of a wolf rather than a dog. However, he agrees that the evidence implies the animals were socialized and lived in some degree of harmony with the humans. Moreover, he suggests that the appearance of these domesticated wolves could have been the first step in the evolutionary process that brought us the dogs we know and love today.
At some point after the child and his mystery companion visited the cave, a landslide sealed the entrance. Amazingly, this prehistoric time capsule laid untouched for thousands of years – until the day Chauvet and his friends made their amazing discovery.
Today, Chauvet cave is off-limits to the public amid concerns that high numbers of visitors could damage the precious remains. Meanwhile, archeologists continue to conduct research at the site. Will they uncover more evidence to prove that the friendship between man and dog is far older than once thought? The truth remains to be seen.