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Cosquer Cave’s Seal-Headed Man and Other Mysterious Beasts

Between Marseille and Cassis in the Bouches-du-Rhône, there exists a steep-sided inlet called the Calanque de Morgiou, home to an underwater grotto known as Cosquer Cave. Long ago, the entrance to this ancient shelter was well above water, but it has since submerged with the rising waters following glacial melt at the end of the last ice age.

The cave was discovered by Henri Cosquer, who found the submerged entrance nearly 120 feet below the surface while diving in the Calanque in 1985. Upon entry, a 450-foot ascending passageway led to a large surface-level gallery, in which Cosquer found an impressive collection of prehistoric paintings and engravings, depicting the various fauna of the Pleistocene world. Cosquer didn’t immediately reveal the location of his discovery; however, a few years later during a failed diving excursion which led to three divers being lost and ultimately drowning in the cave, it’s existence became publicly known in 1991.

In the early 2000s, researchers Jean Clottes, Jean Courtin, and Luc Vanrell began surveys of the cave, which led to 27 instances of radiocarbon dating that defined two main phases represented in the art of Cosquer cave, one dating back to 27,000 BP, the other to 19,000 BP.

The entrance to Cosquer cave, seen at the Calanque de la Triperie at Cap Morgiou (Wikimedia Commons).

According to Clottes, “First, we carried out a careful examination of the walls and roofs with the help of LED lamps, which are the best sources of light to discover fine engravings, to work out their superimpositions and, more generally, to study the traces of human activities on the surfaces.” Clottes and his team’s studies led to the discovery of a number of engravings that had previously been overlooked within the cave (to see a number of images of the art on display within the cave, visit the Bradshaw Foundation website’s gallery of images here).

A total of 177 animal representations are preserved at Cosquer cave, belonging to 11 different species, showcasing more Palaeolithic diversity than similar galleries at Niaux and the famous Lascaux cave (in fact, Cosquer’s representative diversity is rivaled only by Chauvet cave, which displays an impressive 14 different species, as depicted in Werner Hertzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams). According to Clottes, “The 11 species in Cosquer are horses, bison, aurochs, ibex, chamois, saiga antelope, red deer (stags and does), megaloceros deer, feline, auks, seals.” However, in addition to the recognized animal species, there are more esoteric things on display at Cosquer, too.

Archibald Thorburn’s depiction of a group of auks, among the animals depicted at Cosquer cave.

“We have discovered 1 human with a seal’s head,” Clottes reports, as well as “44 black hand stencils and 21 red hand stencils, 216 geometric signs, 20 indeterminate figures,” and other indistinct or abstract markings. The depiction of a human bearing the head of a seal is a fascinating addition to the art on display at the cave. Similarly, the site’s aforementioned cousin, Chauvet cave, displays a therianthropic representation of a godlike humanoid possessing a lion’s head; each representation gives us some insight into the mythic ideas displayed on these cave walls, as well as within the minds of the artists.

While the seal-headed man is arguably Cosquer’s most interesting mythical character, there have been some unique alternate interpretations of other characters depicted at the site. Namely, within the collection known as “The Three Black Auks,” the most prevalent of the three shorebirds depicts a creature with a large, tapering bottom with sharp jutting appendages resembling flippers, as well as a distinctively small head placed above a long, slender neck. While the creature is obviously avian in its characteristics, it has been occasionally likened to a plesiosaur or some similar extinct aquatic beast, as suggested in the January 1994 edition of the INFO Journal.

Drawing depicting one of the “Three Black Auks,” as featured in the 1994 INFO Journal (note how the rendering presented here does favor a plesiosaur, perhaps more than the original cave art ever did).

“Considering all the evidence,” the Journal reported, “the most similar animal is something from the field of cryptozoology. I thought of Bernard Huevelmans’s long-necked sea-serpent, present in all temperate oceans and in some cold lakes of both the southern and northern hemispheres, including Loch Ness (no author was named for the attribution of this vignette).”

This statement, of course, is based on the presumption that a wide variety of animals as-yet unidentified by science do inhabit various lakes and regions of the ocean (as some of them may very well do; I like to remain open-minded). Nonetheless, the grounds upon which the case for a sea monster at Cosquer cave is made seem flimsy, at best.

With or without the inclusion of a sea serpent, the art featured at Cosquer cave remains an inspiring testament to the talent, mythology, depth of thought, and overall skill set of humans in ancient Pleistocene Europe.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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