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An open source project 32,000 years old

Chauvet Cave is one of the first and most surprising examples of human collaboration: An open-source Paleolithic project. Fast-forward to today, and the same open source principles are alive and well.

Tucked away in Ardèche, a départmente in south-central France along the river of the same name, lies one of the oldest and most magnificent testaments to human imagination, creativity, and, surprisingly, collaboration.

In Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, or simply, Chauvet Cave, art ranging from primitive palm smears to detail-rich etchings, complete with shading, relief, three-dimensionality, and a primitive color scheme, can be found. Even more interesting is that the art represents two distinct periods of human history in the region. The earlier and by far more prolific group was the Aurignacian, who roughly 30,000 years ago was responsible for most of the art adorning the walls of Chauvet. Shortly thereafter (a relative term, in this case meaning 10,000 years), the Gravettian added their own artwork to the Aurignacian foundations.

Chauvet is one of the first and most surprising examples of human collaboration: An open-source Paleolithic project. Two cultures, spanning several millennia, worked “together” to create something greater than any other individual contributor was capable of.

Fast-forward to today, and the same open source principles are alive and well. The spirit of human imagination, creativity, and collaboration are as present as ever, across a multitude of disciplines, technology included—especially open source software.

Read about building your own collaborative developer environment.

The dawn of collaboration

The aim of collaboration is simple: working together toward a common goal and creating something greater than anything that could be achieved individually. Open source software facilitates collaboration by removing hurdles that hinder creativity and innovation.

Gone are the days of top-down, need-to-know approaches to information dissemination and problem solving. The modern technology environment is well informed and communicative—making use of wikis, expert blogs, and social networks—where everyone, regardless of their position in an organization, has a voice and something to offer.

The artists at Chauvet Cave took a very similar approach to their creative process, creating something truly incredible—a real wonder.

The earliest collaborative art

In 1994, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire—a team of explorers surveying nearby caves—discovered the 400-meter-long natural equivalent of the Guggenheim. Because of a substantial landslide 25,000 years before the discovery, the cave, its art, and the remains of animal inhabitants were perfectly preserved—a snapshot that offers valuable insight into the life of prehistoric humans.

Read how your open source developers can collaborate across time—and space.

Meet the Gravettian

Although the Aurignacian—Paleolithic humans—are credited with the majority of the art, the Gravettian—their tool-constructing descendants—added to Chauvet upon their discovery of the cave and the art it contained. Anthropologically speaking, this discovery is beyond significant because it bridges nearly 10,000 years of human history. The cave reveals a fascinating narrative with every line, scratch, or smear of color. These marks are like 32,000-year-old lines of “code.”

As if there weren’t enough reasons to be enamored with Chauvet Cave, another wonder is that the art may be unique. It should come as no surprise that most cave art is laden with animal imagery. Reindeer, oxen, horses, mammoths, and basically any animals used as food are common (and recurring) iconographical themes in cave art around the world. Chauvet Cave is no different; yet, what does separate Chauvet is the depiction of more dangerous mammals and apex predators like cave lions and bears, wolves, and woolly rhinos. These are the images that dominate most of the wall space.

Also noteworthy are instances of animation, like the depiction of a rhino with eight legs. When subjected to low-quality, flickering light (not unlike a torch), some of the drawings appear to move. This represents possibly the first instances of animated imagery on Earth, and the technique was duplicated in other caves across France and Spain.

They had a plan

One fascinating piece of the puzzle is the theory that Chauvet was the result of a master artist or architect in both periods of human interaction. Although he or she was most likely not responsible for every piece, there is some evidence to support a plan of attack concerning the type of image (dotted, lined, or shaded design) and the placement.

Not unlike the open source software leadership roles of today, it takes master planners and skilled artists (read: developers) to create something amazing. Scholars speculate that the master artists had a handful of skilled assistants who helped with the almost 1,000 images lining the cave wall. Even more intriguing is the planned use and reuse of existing images by these masters, resulting in a greater whole. In a way, the cave was not unlike a Paleolithic GitHub for these artists.

Social collaboration

Another facet of Chauvet’s mystery is the suggestion that it served a shamanistic, “magical,” or religious purpose. This theory is a result of the consensus that humans never inhabited the cave and visited only for an esoteric reason. The strongest evidence is the “Bear Altar,” a large, square stone set in the center of one of the chambers. When Chauvet and his team initially discovered the cave, they found a very deliberately placed cave bear skull atop the stone.

This “Bear Altar” implies early ritualistic worship, especially when combined with the rest of the predatory imagery, the anthropomorphic bull/Venus pictogram (perhaps an iteration of one of the oldest myths on Earth, the Minotaur), the knowledge that humans didn’t live in the cave, and the many torch smears in different areas. The possible shamanistic or religious purpose of Chauvet Cave provides the most compelling evidence that it was a collaborative effort and not the result of one person, or even one people. Shamanism, religion, and worship in general are traditionally a collaborative, community endeavor.

Collaborations across time

There are several depictions, etchings, and, most telling, scratches and scrapings that prove the collaborative process at Chauvet Cave. One figure, for example, the “Reindeer Pendant,” was drawn and then later scratched off. Two other images—a horse and a mammoth—were then superimposed on the scratched-off original. Radiocarbon dating truly solidifies the story by confirming that most of the art is much older than the pieces akin to the “Reindeer Pendant.” This practice was eerily similar to the process of adding new features to open source software today: start with something good, then add to it, tweak it, and pivot when necessary. That something good is now something great!

What this means is that two distinct peoples, divided by a 10,000-year rift, came to this place and said, “We are here!” Both groups left their mark on the walls of Chauvet Cave, and both peoples contributed facets of their lives upon the porous limestone, in some cases retelling—call it editing—those stories. Collaboratively they wove together a rich tapestry that spans countless centuries.

That beautiful and amazing tradition continues today. Open source developers are doing the same thing their Paleolithic forebears did: leaving their collective marks on the walls of the tech industry. From everyday tasks to creating amazing, creative apps, developers are continuing the tradition of Chauvet Cave in companies and organizations the world over. They need not even be in the same place. Thanks to cloud computing and tools like GitHub, developers can enter the creative call-and-response cycle with other devs regardless of physical space. It makes the art, apps, and solutions they create all the more amazing.

Watch how developers can collaborate with open source cloud apps.