France's Hollande to step back in time at giant cave replica
French President Francois Hollande will step back 36,000 years in time Friday into a darkened, cool cave to admire the earliest known figurative paintings of hands, bears, rhinos and panthers.
But he will actually be above ground, inaugurating a giant, millimetre-by-millimetre exact replica of the closely-guarded Grotte Chauvet in southern France, unearthed by chance in 1994 by a group of speleologists who discovered hundreds of paintings by the our prehistoric ancestors.
Nestled deep in a limestone cliff that hangs over the meandering Ardeche River, the cave is closed to the public so scientists and artists toiled for years to build the 55-million-euro ($58-million) replica down to cloning even the stalactites and stalagmites that pepper the real cavern.
The giant cave reproduction, which from the sky is shaped like a bear's paw, stands on a lush hill close to the small town of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, just one kilometre from the real deal, which last year became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The visitor walks down a long ramp to get into the building housing the replica, entering a darkened, cool and humid place that mirrors conditions in the grotto.
Then just like in the real cave, people stick to a walkway that takes them past replica bones and the skull of an Alpine ibex, a species of wild goat.
The drawings reveal themselves as the visitors walk further into the fake cave, a total of 1,000 paintings including 425 animals -- including bears, rhinos, big cats, owls.
These have been reproduced using charcoal, just like our Aurignacian ancestors did some 36,000 years ago.
Using ultra-modern techniques such as 3D imaging, engineers, sculptors, painters and visual artists faithfully reproduced the paintings.
A team of 10 people in Paris also worked for four years to reproduce stalactites, stalagmites and other formations present in the Grotte Chauvet itself.
Authorities hope that the giant replica will attract some 350,000 visitors a year.
© 2015 AFP