PREHISTORIC art gallery Grotte Chauvet, Ardèche, was yesterday named among 13 new UNESCO World Heritage sites.
It becomes the 39th World Heritage site in France and one of 1,001 sites worldwide.
The Grotte, which was rediscovered in December 1994, contains more than 1,000 drawings dating back up to 37,000 years - making it also the world’s oldest cultural site on the UNESCO list, with the world’s oldest known paintings.
Images include 14 species of animal - including bears, rhinoceroses, panthers and lions – outlines of hands and one unusual depiction of the lower part of a woman’s body alongside a bison.
More discoveries are expected to be found as the furthest areas of the cave - the subject of a Werner Herzog documentary - is explored.
Two other major sites of prehistoric art in Europe, at Lascaux in the Dordogne, and Altamira, Spain, date back between 10,000 and 15,000 years.
Revealing its decision in Doha, Qatar, UNESCO said the Grotte Chauvet, “contains the earliest and best-preserved expressions of artistic creation of the Aurignacian people, which are also the earliest known figurative drawings in the world".
UNESCO added: "The large number of over 1,000 drawings covering over 8,500 square metres (90,000 square feet), as well as their high artistic and aesthetic quality, make Grotte Chauvet an exceptional testimony of prehistoric cave art.
“Its exceptional state of preservation and authenticity is as a result of its concealment over 23 millennia.”
French Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti called the cave “a major site for humanity” that provides an exceptional opportunity for study.
And local MP Pascal Terrasse said: “Our ancestor […] has just been recognised. Let’s hope he forgives us for waited 36,000 years to give his work our blessing.”
The cave will never be opened to the public - but a full-scale replica, the largest ever built, is set to open next spring.
Image: Metropolitan Films / screengrab