A contribution to the discussion about the distant past of humanity, by a sympathiser.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams by the celebrated film director Werner Herzog has just been released in the UK. Hertzog was given access to what, up to now, alongside Lascaux possibly, has been the most dramatic discovery of Upper Palaeolithic cave (parietal) art: the Chauvet Cave in the Ardeche region of southern France. The access given was necessarily restricted in both space and time and the director and 3 or 4 crew had to work with special battery powered lighting. The result is worth seeing. Herzog had previously dismissed out of hand films made in 3D but he uses the process here to good effect. It does a little to enhance the engravings and paintings but it’s in the overall effect of the cave interior and related topography that it shines.
There is a great deal that’s important about Chauvet: as a result of good luck, the cave mouth had been totally sealed by a great rock fall many moons ago, providing almost perfect conditions to preserve the paintings. Herzog and others talk about some of the engravings looking “like they were done yesterday”, which indeed they do in the film. The art is at least 32,000 years old and the work was carried out over a five thousand year period. On its discovery in 1994, the date was hotly disputed; mainly, I think, because it didn’t fit in with the theories of the “old guard” (including some young old guard) and they simply couldn’t believe that such dramatic and detailed art could have such antiquity (they should have known by looking at the Swabian Jura – see below). The dating is now beyond dispute and the work of excavation, discovery and interpretation goes on today. The film is a positive contribution to this.
No humans lived in this cave or rather there’s no evidence of it. Fires were lit but there is no evidence of cooking and charcoal was used for lighting. The torch “swipes” on the cave wall have themselves been carbon dated. Cave bears lived here both before and after the paintings. As the film shows, there is evidence of bear skulls being deliberately placed, and bear bones being placed in the ground and in crevices in the cave wall, which is characteristic of “religious” practices involving the entering of other worlds. There is also a bear skull that has been deliberately marked with paint. At least one child has been in the cave. The film deals with the large number of palm prints that mostly seem the work of one individual, but again this is characteristic of communication with the spirit world through the cave wall. I think that all this underlines a community of belief.
When the cave mouth was open there is, in the half-light of the Chamber of Bear Hollows, a wall that would have been perfect for painting. There is nothing painted here and instead the painting and engraving begin in the chambers and galleries that would have been in total darkness. The film shows the dots and “signs” that evoke insects and birds and there is the absence of any human figure with the exception of a “sorcerer”, a female pubic triangle, a female silhouette associated with a composite bison being. The film, like most popular research, doesn’t deal much with the geometric signs that are ubiquitous in cave art over a twenty thousand year period; circles, dashes, broken lines, dots, etc. In some parts of Chauvet these signs are a dominant feature while animals are relegated to the background. There are “signs” on many of the animals and some seem to have blood coming out of their mouths or noses, again characteristic of shamanistic rituals even relatively recently. There are themes going on here, a narrative and it seems to me that these “signs” are the closest thing we have to a written language over thirty thousand years ago. I think that it’s reasonable to assume that where the drawings and engravings are concentrated that ceremonies, rituals and religious practices would have taken place.
There are some examples of animals drawn that are not usual in cave art of the Upper Palaeolithic: two jaguars, a long-eared owl, a musk-ox and, in the only example I know of an ape or monkey in the whole period, a baboon which seems to be taking in the panel of rhinoceros. It’s briefly shown in the film though not commented upon. Animals are shown emerging from hollows or crevices in the walls which themselves are part of the theme and, if we can’t know the details, at least provide some framework for understanding. The animals depicted are mostly dangerous, non-hunted species; whatever was being depicted here wasn’t the diet of humans and herein lays the importance of Chauvet. One of the objections of the “old guard” to the early dating of this art was that it directly attacked their idea of the gradual development of cave art from the simple to the more complex: here was complexity at a stroke, or rather different strokes. It is not “hunting magic”, i.e. “fixing” the kill; 81% of the animals are non-hunted. And nor is it “art for art’s sake” given the difficulties of undertaking the work in the dark depths.
The film, and Herzog, makes an interesting link with the art of the Swabian plateau in the now German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, which is home to a large number of prehistoric caves and rock shelters. It’s about 400 miles away from Chauvet further up the same ice-carved valley. Here, forty-thousand years ago homo sapiens produced sculptured art that seems to have been carried around; and in many cases these portable figures were dangerous animals “caught” in a pose of aggression, power and strength. Alongside these are some anthropomorphic figures as well as many exaggerated “Venus” type figures of large, fertile women along with engraved or painted vulvas. It isn’t a case of two-dimensional art (Chauvet) taking over from three-dimensional art (Swabian), because the former itself is almost three-dimensional. But the connection raised in the film is certainly very interesting.
Neanderthals were in close proximity throughout this whole period but there is no evidence that they produced any art. I’m wary of any idea of “the birthplace of art” here; that happened long before in Africa. But there is no doubt that this is part of a “creative explosion” that has strong undertones of spirituality. Jean Clottes (who appears briefly in the film) was the leader of the team of specialists investigating the cave and he says in his book
that the cave provides a framework of shamanistic practices and beliefs. This is not the beginning of art but the cave, and the film underlines it, is representative of profound mental and social changes that mankind has gone through.
 Return To Chauvet Cave, Thames and Hudson – highly recommended.