Werner Herzog’s The Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a gorgeous journey into the past, both inspirational and evocative. The film takes us on a tour of the Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc cave, filled with gorgeous neolithic cave paintings dating back 30,000 years. With the help of the researchers currently studying the cave, we attempt to understand the people who created and used these works of art, and the world they lived in. A little over-the-top and fanciful in parts, it still weaves a fascinating and moving story.
Chauvet has been sealed off for at least 20,000 years, during which time all its treasures have remained pristine. And what treasures! The repeated ocher palm imprints in one alcove
(all done by the same person, as evidenced by the same small deformity of his/her pinky finger); the lion couple rubbing up against each other (solving an interesting mystery: namely, did male European lions have manes? The answer is no); the groups of horses and ibexes, suggesting swift flowing motion. These old humans may have been primitive but they were not stupid: they were keen observers of the world around them, and filled their art with precise and exquisite details.
But what were they for? Probably religious/spiritual ceremonies of some kind. It was pointed out that there were few paintings near the entrance of the cave, which would have been filled with sunlight back in the day. This shows at least a division of space, even if Cro-Magnons didn’t actually live in the cave they must have used it for shelter at least part-time. One scientist suggested that the paintings were parts of shadow plays. Why not? It’d be a visually striking way to interact with the animals on the walls.
The movie also took us into the wider culture in which these ancient artists lived. We looked at other artefacts from around that era, including a lovely leopard-man statuette and many, many Venuses similar to the Venus of Willendorf. The were made of different materials and varied in some details, but they all had the same basic design. Whatever they represented (fertility charms? prehistoric porn?) they were a common element of a very wide-ranging culture.
The leopard-man was interesting, too. It seemed to suggest a belief in the fluidity of life, that animals could transform into humans and vice-versa, and the walls between species were very thin. Makes sense, really: there are people today who believe this.
One of the researchers said that Cro-Magnons (and we as well) should not call ourselves Homo Sapiens, but Homo Spiritualis. There were some groans from my (skeptical & atheistic) friends at that point, but… y’know, he has a point. I’ve long believed that the revolution in art and technology starting 50,000 years ago or so must have been accompanied by religion (assuming that wasn’t around before). The ability to conceive and draw these gorgeous cave paintings goes hand-in-hand with the ability to tell stories about them, and I bet the first stories would have been about gods and spirits and whatnot.
Oh, and I finally learned how spear-throwers work!