The woolly rhinos of Chauvet.


The woolly rhinos depicted in Chauvet cave are famous for their "black transverse bands " belted across the middle of the body side. Robert Dale Guthrie in his book "The Nature of Paleolithic art" discussed the subject. He interpreted the black "belt" as "contrasting" element of the coloration of the Woolly Rhino of the Southern Europe. Dale Guthrie provides a numerous modern day examples of mammals with black and white "contrasting: coloration with  a black and white Holstein cow being closer in terms of position of the black area to the coloration of Chauvet rhinos . But besides the Holstein cattle is a domesticated animal, with a coloration subject to non-adaptive munitions, the distribution of the black spots  does not follow the pattern depicted in the Chauvet rhinos. In the Holstein cattle the black spot/spots on the mid of the body side are always accompanied with additional black spots on the body posterior (on the pelvic /femural) area. (Not present in the DG figure) Those spots are variable by size and shape, but they are always present. Such "femoral"  dark spots are not indicated in the Chauvet cave rhinos*. 

But does the "contrasting coloration approach" is necessary to explain the Chauvet rhino coloration? 

Modern day analogues of the Chauvet rhinos coloration do exist among species with no black and white contrasting coloration. 

In terms of a single entirely black patch/spot  restricted  to the mid of the body side there is one large mammal species only today  - the Lichtenstein's hartebeest (Alcelaphus lichtensteinii). Although the black spot is not a part of the natural coloration of the animal, but a result of the rubbing of the preorbital glands at the body side and, is not always present, it is a significant and a prominent part of the Lichtenstein's hartebeest  coloration. The spot vary in size and shape, but do not appear to have correlation with age or gender. The black spot when present is solid black and with irregular shape, although in general tends to be round.

Examples  of Lichtenstein's hartebeest: (Here and further in the text click on the bold text to open an example )

Lichtenstein's hartebeest 

 Lichtenstein's hartebeest

Another species of the Hartebeest species complex - the Swayne's hartebeest (Alcelaphus swaynei) do develop dark to black colored areas on the mid of the body side as well, but as in the Holstein cattle the Swayne's hartebeest have also well prominent black markings on the elbow and lover thigh areas.  The body side's black areas/spots vary in size and shape but their borders are smooth. Also in Swayne's hartebeest the dark spots appear to be related to the age and are  secondary sexual character confident to the males

Example of a Swayne'e hartebeest 

Swayne'e hartebeest

Although both Hartebeest species do resemble to some degree the coloration pattern of the Chauvet rhinos , there are still some problems with them as a modern analogues - in terms of the Lichtenstein's hartebeest it is unlikely that the woolly rhinos have had preorbital glands  with a dark discharge, but even so they would not be able to reach they body sides. In terms of the  Swayne's hartebeest the dark areas of the Chauvet rhinos are single with no additional dark ares on the thigh and/or  the shoulders 

The "black belts" are not present in all of the rhinos depicted in Chauvet. In those of the rhinos, which do have "black belts" they are depicted in two different ways -Type 1 - as a rectangle transverse dark band with straight vertical lines as borders. In some the belts are monotonously dark/black, in others there is a lighter inner space enclosed between two dark/black border bands , and Type 2 - dark broad bands encircling partially or completely a lighter area on the mid of the body with variable shape and blurred borders. In both types of "black belts"  it can be seen that the dark areas are depicted  not uniform, but rather the black band/bands enclose a lighter area. .  

Combination of the different shades of dark to light in the  "black belts" of the Chauvet Rhinos makes them similar to the coloration of some individuals of  mouflon of the Ovis orientalis species complex (Depending on the taxonomy approach the wild sheep are classified from a single species with multiple subspecies , to  two or more species united in two or more groups or species complexes). The spot on the side of the body is most often light to white, with different level of  expression in terms of size and intensity, and it is encircled with black areas,(bands), as a rule at front 

Example of a "typical" male mouflon

but some times the black is encircles both the  frontal and caudal side.  Example

This coloration pattern of the wild sheep is distributed from the Mediterranean islands populations through the Middle east to Central Asia, but mostly in the populations living in low altitudes. From west to east the intensity of the black when present and the frequency of the individuals in which it is present tends to decrease.  Also this coloration is confident to the males despite not all males have it

Example of a male mouflon with no light/white lateral spot

In some of the reintroduced populations in the Continental  Europe it also can be found in some females.

 Example of a female mouflon with light and dark lateral pattern

Although the spot is white and black, in some individuals the white is reduced 

Example of a male mouflon with reduced white color

or do not exist at all, so only the black color remains - in a shape of a transverse black band with somewhat  light areas inside, quite similar to the Woolly Rhinos with Type 1 "black belts" 

Examples of male mouflon with only black lateral pattern:

Mouflon 1,   Mouflon 2, Mouflon 3

It is no quite clear what the variation of the side black/white spot  of the wild sheep depends on. Seems it is loosely correlated with age -  increasing the size of the spot with increase the size of the horns as an age indicator as well as tends to be more prominent in the winter pelage. 




The plate illustrates variation of the coloration of the Chauvet woolly rhinos.  The rhinos  (1a, 2a, 3a, and 4a) are reconstructed on the base of depictions of rhinos of the Chauvet cave ( with the respective numbers - 1b, 2b, 3b, and 4b.)** The mouflons are based on photos/skins of real individuals and demonstrate variation of the coloration  similar  to the one of the depicted woolly rhinos (with the same numbers).


The parallels between the variation of the  "black/white spot of the mouflon body side  and the coloration of the woolly rhinos depicted in Chauvet suggest that the "black belt" of the later was not an uniform structure but a part of a complex pelage pattern, which includes also white/light colors in a specific combination with the black

*It seems that no mammal species exist today with a single black/dark spot/band on the mid side of the body, without to be accompanied by additional dark/balck areas on the shoulders and or/and the femoral area. This limitation is most likely due to physiological constraint in the development of the pelage coloration.  

** 1b right , 2b, 3b and 4b  - Grand Panneau des Lions, 1b-left - Galerie des Mégacéros 



Castelló, J. R. 2016. Bovids of the World, Antelopes, Gazelles, Cattle, Goats, Sheep, and Relatives. Princeton Field Guides)

Chauvet (J.-M.), Brunel Deschamps (E.), Hillaire (C.). 1995. La grotte Chauvet à Vallon Pont-d'Arc. Paris : Seuil. (Arts rupestres) 

Dale Guthrie, Robert 2006. The Nature of Paleolithic Art University Of Chicago Press

Fritz Carole & Gilles Tosello  2015. From Gesture  to Myth: Artists’ techniques on the walls of Chauvet Cave Aurignacian Genius: Art, Technology and Society of the First Modern Humans in Europe Proceedings of the International Symposium, April 08-10 2013, New York University.  280-314