It’s an extravagant statement to make, bordering on hyperbole, yet, after seeing Werner Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet cave, discovered in 1994, one struggles to find words befitting the discovery. The first thing that strikes you as soon as you see the images (in 3D) is how modern they look. You can understand why the first reaction from academia was that they were a hoax, not 34,000 years old as has been verified by carbon dating.
The significance of this film is that it will probably be the only one ever made. The caves are closed to the public, only selected scientists and academics can gain access and only at certain times of the year. The caves were hermetically sealed off by a landslide and that’s the only reason we have this preservation of ancient rock art executed during the ice age when we co-inhabited Europe with Neanderthals. I say ‘we’ because they are the common ancestors to most of the peoples in the world today. The human genome project has revealed that we all came out of Africa, including all indigenous tribal people, and Asians as well as Europeans.
One of the archaeologists, a young man with a science background, who spent 4 continuous days in the cave, tells of the emotional impact they had on him beyond his expectations. In particular, they filled his dreams with the animals he saw. He said he dreamt of lions, both depicted and real-life forms. He remarked upon the emotional and subliminal connection that they could still make with humans living over 30,000 years after they had been created. When I was a child (pre-adolescent) I used to draw animals all the time – they were my favourite subject – concordant with a fascination with animal life in general. I was fortunate enough to live near the bush (as we call it in Oz) with a creek running alongside our house that plummeted into a deep gorge, not that far from where we lived.
This connection and this fascination with wild animals is something that we’ve lost. For these people, one feels it was spiritual, and that’s not just a projection. Herzog went to a lot of trouble to place this particular artwork into a much broader context. Talking with a number of academics, it became clear that 30-40,000 years ago in ice-gripped Europe, art, in all its manifestations that we know today, flourished. In particular, there are numerous figurines, especially of the female form, and bone flutes from the same age. So we know that both graphic and sculptural art flourished as well as music, and we can assume that so did storytelling, mythmaking and religion. Many people make a connection between art and religion, and I think one can safely say that they were born at the same time. They both deal with the subconscious and our dreamworld. An archaeologist at another site, produced a bone flute made from the radius bone of a vulture with 4 holes drilled in it. He played The Star Spangled Banner (though he was obviously not American) to demonstrate that these ice-age humans used the same musical scale that we use today.
The same archaeologist, whom we met earlier in the film discussing his dreams, tells of an incident he saw in northern Australia (probably in a documentary) of an Aboriginal Elder showing someone some rock art from thousands of years earlier and explaining how it used to be maintained but now it’s not. He then proceeded to ‘touch it up’ or restore it. When the white man asked him if he was an artist. He said, no, he wasn’t the artist, the ‘spirit’ was. And this is something that all artists can identify with, like we are a medium for something beyond us, out there. This is the exact same sense that people have with religion. They were born at the same time in humanity: the dawn of the human mind.