Man who discovered world's only prehistoric underwater cave paintings breaks silence on Paris rivalry
Henri Cosquer poses next to a reproduction of a painting of the Cosquer Cave as part of the presentation of the Cosquer Cave Replication Project - GERARD JULIEN / AFP
When the French diver Henri Cosquer came across the only prehistoric cave paintings in the world that were created under the sea off Marseille in 1991, some Parisian experts laughed at his claims of caveman penguin art as an exaggeration of Provence.
These claims turned out to be entirely accurate and the Cosquer Cave - the entrance of which is 37 meters below the waves - welcomed France's “underwater Lascaux”.
Now, in the seventies, Mr Cosquer is on the verge of his last laugh as an exact copy of the fabulous discovery that bears his name will soon be available to the public in Marseille.
Experts across France are putting the finishing touches to a perfect facsimile of Cosquer Cave - the only one in the world with an entrance below today's sea level, where cave art has been preserved from the floods that occurred when the seas rose after the end of the last Ice Age .
The original contains a bestiary with 500 drawings of 11 different species, including horses, bison, aurochs, ibex, chamois, saiga antelopes, red and megaloceros deer and a cave lion.
However, marine animals such as penguins, auks, seals and jellyfish-like creatures are unique to the cave. The cave also contains a representation of what some have called the first prehistoric murder, showing a human with a seal head pierced by a spear.
The cave has dozens of black and red hand stencils - Henri Cosquer / Gamma-Rapho
There are also depictions of reproductive organs, dozens of black and red hand stencils, strange geometric characters, and even children's handprints eight feet off the ground, suggesting they were sitting on the shoulders of adults.
Unable to verify firsthand Mr. Cosquer's spectacular claims at the time, some experts dismissed it as a fantasy. No Paleolithic art had ever been discovered in this area.
Denis Vialou, deputy director of the Paris Natural History Museum, said he was "deeply convinced it was a fake" while science journalist Isabelle Bourdial mocked the unlikely presence of the "Provencal penguin".
In a rare interview, Mr Cosquer - who resembles a gruff Gallic rugby striker - told the Telegraph that his skepticism still angered him 30 years later.
"Paris and Marseille never got along. They think they are the kings of the world and the rest of us are useless. But I wouldn't vouch for these know-it-alls. How many learned to dive to see the cave for themselves?" Asked he.
Enough to confirm that he was telling the truth. In fact, carbon dating has shown that they were painted in two different time periods - about 30,000 years ago and 19,000 years ago.
Referred to by the French press as the Underwater Indian Jones, Mr Cosquer first found the cave entrance in 1985 after falling from his boat - incredibly known as the Cro Magnon - to explore the depths of the rocky Calanque de la Triperie near Cassis.
Cosquer in a deep sea diving suit at the Marseille National Institute for Diving - Gamma-Rapho / Fanny BROADCAST
It took nerves of steel to swim about 360 feet through a narrow, pitch-black gallery, which miraculously led to a huge chamber partially above sea level.
He shone his torch into the cave and was blinded by stalagmites and stalactites and a "gigantic kaleidoscope" of colors, but did not notice any human hand. "It wasn't like arriving at a supermarket with a bright light," he said.
Just a few dives later, he noticed a red hand on a wall created by a prehistoric artist who was spitting pigments on the cave to form a silhouette.
"At first I thought, 'Who came here to put graffiti on the walls? "He said." I only realized later that it was prehistoric graffiti. "
Mr Cosquer finally revealed his secret find in 1991, shortly after three divers were killed while panicking in the murky mud of the gallery.
When the grotto was last visited almost 20,000 years ago, it was 5 km from the shore. Since then the sea level has risen by 130 meters. Today only a third of the cave is above sea level and the water is rising inexorably due to climate change.
Hence the decision to build a copy of the original to open in the summer of 2022 in Marseilles Villa Méditerranée, a futuristic building partly next to the renowned Mucem Museum.
Visitors enter the replica cave in "exploration pods" that give the illusion of emerging below the waterline.
You will then see a lovingly recreated replica by artisans who worked on similar copies of Lascaux in the Dordogne and Chauvet in the Ardèche.
Henri Cosquer in Rescue in 1989 - Henri Cosquer / Gamma-Rapho
When the actual cave is digitally 3D scanned, every detail is recreated with concrete, resin, but also marble powder and crushed glass to create glittering mineral deposits of monkeys.
Then comes the painting. In a warehouse outside Toulouse, Gilles Tosello, an artist and prehistorian, gave the telegraph an exclusive look at several panels recreating the cave art using images of the paintings projected on the walls.
Penguins, horses, and a large cat all look like they were drawn to the original walls. They were drawn using the same tools as their prehistoric ancestors, including charcoal made from Scottish pine branches and natural pigment such as cassava.
Mr Tosello said his work was more than just a replication. “It's not just about copying penguins. It's not a decoration. The aim is to give visitors the same feeling as if they were entering the real cave. "
He expressed deep respect for cave artists. "It's hard to achieve the beauty and safety of their sinuous lines on rocks," he said, adding that there was a "common thread" from "Caravaggio all the way back to Cosquer".
"When you've seen our tablets, I want you to think," You're crazy, you cut up our cave. "
Mr Cosquer said it was important that the specimen be displayed in Marseille.
"It was very likely a Marseillais who painted this, a grandfather or grandmother 33,000 years ago. That's why I support this replica so that the layman can really see what I've seen with my own eyes."
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