Tuesday, July 12, 2011

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams”: Plumbing the Depths of Our Common Humanity

For my money, there are few mysteries greater than the deep history of our race. What exactly were we humans doing five, ten, twenty thousand years ago? In grade school, I studied ancient Egypt, the Greeks and Romans; our fifth-grade class read about the Fertile Crescent. But those tales are only 5,000 years old, at most. No teacher ever suggested to me that human beings might have worshiped anything at all 10,000 years ago. Or that 30,000 years ago, people perhaps very much like you and me were interpreting their world or the spirit world, more awestruck by existence then than we are today, when mystery has all but disappeared from our lives.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a recent documentary by Werner Herzog, arouses such thoughts with full force. Until it lapses into total nuttiness with a postscript about albino crocodiles, it is an awesome meditation on, and expression of, that innermost part of ourselves that seeks to plumb the deepest mysteries.

Herzog got exclusive access to bring his camera into the Chauvet caves in the south of France, discovered in 1994 and containing the oldest known cave paintings. Wikipedia provides a short summary:

The Chauvet Cave is uncharacteristically large and the quality, quantity, and condition of the artwork found on its walls has been called spectacular. Based on radiocarbon dating, the cave appears to have been occupied by humans during two distinct periods: the Aurignacian and the Gravettian. Most of the artwork dates to the earlier, Aurignacian, era (30,000 to 32,000 years ago). The later Gravettian occupation, which occurred 25,000 to 27,000 years ago, left little but a child's footprints, the charred remains of ancient hearths and carbon smoke stains from torches that lit the caves. After the child's visit to the cave, evidence suggests that the cave had been untouched until discovered in 1994. The footprints may be the oldest human footprints that can be dated accurately.

I don’t know about you, but all I have to do is imagine an unknown human child walking through a cave 25,000 years ago, and I get a chill.

At left is a detail from one of the many extensive murals, if you can call them that. These are not rudimentary scratches with the end of a pointed stick, but fully realized works of human art. Scientists have concluded that the extensive Chauvet cave system was open to the sunlight in the days of the painters and was only closed off by a landslide in the intervening centuries. Speleologists discovered it when one felt a faint draft coming out of a crack in the rock face, indicating an underground passageway.

Herzog assembles a fascinating collection of paleontologists, archaeologists, geologists, and other experts who have been studying Chauvet for the past fifteen years. In each of their faces, his camera captures the passion of scientific exploration. I was disappointed by a final interview with a head scientist who was asked why these early humans painted animal figures in such abundance. He called it a case of adaptation, in a sense that I took to be Darwinian. Here I had been entranced for over an hour by extraordinary works of art created by my own ancestors for reasons I will never fully understand, and an “expert” had to tell me they are simply a case of adaptation?!

On the other hand, another scientist brought out a striking fact. Cave painting is an exclusively human activity. Archaeologists have never found a Neanderthal settlement that showed any evidence of such interpretive artistry. Another fifth-grade preconception shattered! Didn’t we “descend” from the Neanderthal? What spark occurred within the mind of man that resulted in this entirely new way of relating to reality? Were our human ancestors any different in nature from Herzog and his camera crew, who explore, capture, and interpret the caves with modern image-making tools? Cave of Forgotten Dreams provokes many questions like these.

Netflix this film. Just please ignore Herzog’s postscript about the nuclear power plants 30 miles from the caves, the radioactive effluents of which have resulted in a bunch of very creepy albino crocodiles staring at the camera with glowing, pink eyeballs. With a hallucinogenic flight of the imagination, Herzog suggests that these crocs are exactly like us.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you have trouble posting comments, please log in as Anonymous and sign your comment manually.