PRIVAS, France — Jean-Marie Chauvet noticed air whistling out from a crack on a plateau in southern France, so he and fellow cave enthusiasts went to investigate. What they found that Sunday in 1994 still fills Chauvet's voice with wonder: an immense cave covered with prehistoric paintings of horses, mammoths and rhinos — paintings so vivid, he says, it felt like the Stone Age artists had just moments ago put down their ochre and walked away.
The discovery of the long-hidden artwork created a sensation, but the site was quickly closed to the public. Just by breathing, tourists could erode the images.
Since most modern humans will never get to see the masterpieces in what is widely known as the Chauvet Cave, scientists, artists and the French government have spent 56 million euros (about $60 million) and several years creating the next best thing: a near-exact replica of the cave about two kilometers (1.2 miles) away, including more than 400 paintings of horses, bears, rhinoceros and mammoths, hand prints and carvings. Experts even recreated stalactites and stalagmites from the original site, as well as the cool temperatures and thick smell of humidity.
French President Francois Hollande unveiled the site Friday, and it opens to the public later this month.
In a rare interview, Chauvet described digging through narrow passageways and guiding a flashlight in the blackness until one of his fellow spelunkers came across "the two lines of red ochre. That's when it started."
"What impressed us," Chauvet said, "was the freshness. ... The paintings are as if they had just left, these men, these women" who painted them. "And the deeper you go, the more grandiose. It's really an art gallery."
It turned out they had been remarkably well-preserved thanks to a rock fall about 23,000 years ago that concealed the site. The conditions kept the drawings in such a pristine state that some researchers doubted their authenticity.
"This cave wasn't exposed to gusts of violent air," Chauvet said. "It was preserved, like in a jar."
Questions surrounded the exact date of the paintings, now widely believed to be between 30,000 and 37,000 years old. That means they were the oldest human cave drawings known at the time of the discovery. Since then, scientists have determined that cave drawings in El Castillo in Spain were painted at least 40,000 years ago.
Chauvet fought years of legal battles against the French government over rights to the discovery, and is still seeking royalties. Officials with the Culture Ministry were convicted of falsifying documents to make it look like he was on official duty when he found it; he insists he was on holiday at the time.
Today the site is officially managed by regional and national government authorities, and it doesn't officially bear the discoverers' names, to Chauvet's dismay.
Authorities say they are putting the public's interest first.
Pascal Terrasse, a legislator in charge of the replica project, described being the first government official to enter the original cave soon after the discovery: "We understood that we had to quickly protect it, and ensure that it was never opened to the public" to protect it from "carbonic gases" from visitors, he told AP.
Experts have recorded more than 1,000 images from the walls of the cave, inscribed last year on UNESCO's World Heritage List. German filmmaker Werner Herzog brought the original cave alive in a 3-D film, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams."
The replica tries to reproduce as much of that as possible. Millimeter by millimeter, scientists and artists used the same tools and techniques believed to have been used in the Stone Age.
It feels strange at first, a bit like an amusement park. But a similar replica — of the 18,000-year-old cave drawings in the Lascaux caves in southwest France — draws about 300,000 visitors yearly.
Organizers are hoping for similar crowds at the Pont d'Arc Cavern opening this month, despite the remote locale in this striking but little-traveled corner of southeast France.
The next step, Terrasse said, could be "a virtual version, 3D, something that could move around" — and bring prehistory to generations looking to the future.
If You Go...
PONT D'ARC CAVERN: http://lacavernedupontdarc.org/en/the-cavern-pont-darc/. Opens April 25. Located near the town of Vallon-Pont-d'Arc. Nearest train stations at Valence or Montelimar, from which you can take two consecutive buses to the cave. Vallon-Pont-d'Arc is located 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Lyon and 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Avignon in southwestern France.
Angela Charlton contributed from Paris.