French divers find prehistoric paintings of penguins in Mediterranean cave

October 20, 1992|By New York Times News Service

TOULON, France -- French divers have discovered a partly flooded cave filled with prehistoric rock paintings and engravings -- a great underground amphitheater studded with running horses, bison and deer as well as images of human hands believed to have been drawn some 18,000 years ago.

The cave lies deep inside a cliff on the edge of the Mediterranean. Its murals have surprised specialists because they include drawings of seals and penguins, the first images of such sea creatures ever found in Western Europe's prehistoric caves.

Seals still exist here today but the penguins are an unusual souvenir from an era when much of Europe was under ice and the Mediterranean was a chilly region with a climate more like today's Scandinavia.

Historians have compared the great parade of more than 100 animals to the paintings of Lascaux, in France's Dordogne, which is widely held to be the region's most beautiful collection of mural paintings of the Paleolithic era.

They say that the newly found paintings are fewer, but possibly several thousand years older than those of Lascaux.

The ancient "art gallery" was discovered in a cove near Cap Morgiou, 7.5 miles southeast of Marseilles, a region of unspoiled inlets and cliffs and a favorite haunt of divers who like to explore its grottos and crevices.

Henri Cosquer, a diving instructor who often explored the area, first saw the paintings in July 1991, when he and several friends entered an underwater hollow at a depth of 121 feet.

Here the swimmers threaded through a narrow tunnel 574 feet long that steadily rose until it reached the first of two great caverns. As Cosquer later told it, he was astonished when a searchlight suddenly revealed the first image: the black outlines of a human hand.

Although a small team of divers photographed and explored the chambers last fall, researchers have taken almost a year to study their initial findings and to assure themselves through tests of charcoal and calcium deposits that the paintings and engravings are indeed from prehistoric times.

They have published their first study in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the French Prehistoric Society, as well as in the journal Antiquity, but during new explorations of the cave this summer the researchers have found many more paintings and engravings than they cited in their report.

Few people have entered the chambers since then. Three divers from Grenoble who set out to explore the underwater passage two months after Cosquer, were found drowned in the narrow, pitch-black tunnel. French Navy divers have put a gate in the only passage leading to the caves.

In September, the French government formally declared the cave a historic monument, pre-empting local plans already on the table to develop the cove for tourism.

"It's a very important find, the first on the coast and the first in this region," said Philippe Grenier de Monner, a director of archaeology at the Culture Ministry.

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