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Google’s immersive virtual reality tour enables you to time travel to the Stone Age without leaving home

Written by
Howard Halle

Discovered in 1994, the Chauvet Cave in Southern France is a World Unesco Heritage Site and home to one of the true wonders of the world: A series of Prehistoric cave paintings that date as far back as 32,000 years ago. These Paleolithic masterpieces feature stunningly lifelike scenes of animals representing 13 different species, most of them extinct—bison, cave lions, leopards, bears, cave hyenas and wooly rhinoceroses. There are hundreds of images covering the walls, rendered with a realistic style of shading that follows the contours of the walls to add a nearly physical three-dimensionality to the forms. The legs of the animals are also often multiplied to given them a sense of movement.

Photograph: L. Guichard/Perazio/smergc

Still, why these murals were made remains a mystery, and their secrets aren’t likely to be decoded soon: Because of the fragile nature of the paintings, the cave is closed to the public. But that doesn't mean you can’t visit: You can, and you don’t even have to leave the couch.

Photograph: L. Guichard/Perazio/smergc

Thanks to an initiative by Google’s Arts and Culture platform, you can see the paintings as if you were right in front of them. Although the site has been giving users access to high-resolution images of artworks from major museums since 2011, the Chauvet project is the first time they’ve used virtual or augmented reality technology to visualize the experience. To take the tour, you download an app that connects you to videos and various VR and AR modes. Of course, you have to provide your own VR device.

But even if you don’t have that, you can still experience the cave thanks to a video (narrated by Daisy Ridley!) posted on YouTube that lets you navigate the scene a full 360 degrees in any direction. It’s a fascinating trip that takes you back into deep time and the dawn of art.

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