Werner Herzog called his film of it, ‘The Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ (2010). But, somehow, those dreams remain our dreams 35,000 years later.

In  mid-December, 1994, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire discovered drafts of air emanating from the rocks they were exploring. This was an indication that a cave existed beneath them. They were in the Ardeche Gorge, on the Ibie River, near the Pont d’Arc  in southern France. 20,000 years earlier, a rock slide from the cliff above had sealed the outside and obvious entrance to the cave, leaving the world inside pristine and with its own delicate climate. Jean Clotte was to become the head of the scientific team which was the first to enter the site.

To go into the Chauvet Cave to make Werner’s film,  the crew passed first through a steel door now sealing the cave. Locked inside, they put on sterile boots. They were restricted to one hour of filming in which, they had to remain on a narrow laid path; had not to touch anything; and had to use three flat cold light panels powered from battery belts. The last creatures to enter the cave 20,000 earlier might have been cave bears, now extinct.

The paintings in the cave inhabited a dark silence. There would have been a play of light and shadow from Paleolithic torches across the surfaces. In fact, the drawings only begin at a point in the cave where the light from the old entrance-before the rock fall- would have been obscured. There are different panels of extraordinary beauty in the cave, notably, one of horses, one of a panther (the only such drawing ever found in a cave), and a lion panel. The lion panel ended a controversy as to whether or not male cave lions sported a mane. They did not.

Usually in cave art, animals of the hunt are depicted, i.e. horses, cattle, reindeer, oryx, bison, but the walls of the Chauvet Cave, exceptionally, include many predatory animals: cave lions, panthers, bears, owls, and cave hyenas. Wooly Rhinos with very long horns are depicted. There is a bison with eight legs in different positions to indicate galloping, what Werner calls a proto- cinematic effect. Is there perspective in any of these drawings? There are wolves, Wooly Mammoths, and deep inside the cave, there are partially washed-away red images of an insect, a butterfly and a bird -in-flight. The cave is 1300 feet long.

The artists used the uneven rock walls to lend contour or a 3-dimensional quality to the shapes of the animals. They also used shading in charcoal to suggest volume. The cave was used for drawing/ritual and was never a dwelling. Three methods were used for decorating the walls:

1. A Mammoth is painted by hand.

2. A charred stick end or the end of what had been a torch was used to sketch in black at about a height of six feet.

3. Artists scraped away the wall surface to create a white or lighter ‘canvas’ upon which to draw.

Although we cannot reconstruct the past, we can feel it. The drawings have a mystical pull upon us, overwhelming our sense of individuality. The lions painted in the cave made one scientist dream about lions, real ones and painted ones. When asked if it were a nightmare, he replied that he had not felt frightened but powerful. In the cave, the scientists experienced  time and place dissolve into an imaginary space. All the scientists felt that ‘eyes were looking at them from the past’ (I think that they did not mean this as a metaphor, but  actually imagined the presence of eyes.)The individual is dwarfed by his own imagination, which is paradoxical, because we would expect our imaginations to make us more narcissistic. But instead, imagination makes us bigger than ourselves. (read: ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ by Joseph Campbell)

The Artist, ‘Crooked Little Finger’

By 2011, over 80 radiocarbon dates had been taken, with samples from torch marks and from the paintings themselves, as well as from animal bones and charcoal found on the cave floor. The radiocarbon dates from these samples suggest that there were two periods of creation in Chauvet: 35,000 years ago and 30,000 years ago. 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 footprint, 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, due to a landslide. The paintings may span well over a thousand years and represent the work of several artists. Because these artists are not locked in a concept of chronological history, the drawings blend with one another and even may overlap.

There was one artist who was six feet tall. He signed his paintings by imprinting his hand near his work. His hand would be placed against the surface of the wall, and red paint would be blown, probably by mouth, around the stencil of his hand. This is how it is known that he had a crooked little finger.He is the artist of the horse panel. Beside another large panel in red paint (ground ocher) next to the small and large- horned rhino depiction, rests his hand mark.

The far end of the cave has too much CO2 gas for a long exploration. A rock pendant hangs down (perhaps suggestive) and on it is painted the lower portion of a female body (her genitals).The female has been designated a ‘Venus’ figure. With a camera which can bend around the pendant, it becomes clear that the female body merges with a Minotaur or bison.

Equally important to me is the possibility that the cave itself might have been both male and female.  Picasso was still painting this theme in the Twentieth Century. 

Ariadne and the story of the Labyrinth comes to us from Greek mythology. King Minos of Crete failed to sacrifice a bull to Poseidon, god of the sea, who punished Minos by causing his wife Pasiphae to desire a bull and to bear Minos a Minotaur, half man, half bull. Daedalus built a maze of winding passages to house this bull-man. Such a maze could well describe a cave, and the legend may originate in pre-history.

400 miles north of the Ardeche are the Schwabian Alps of Germany. 32,000 years ago, the typography of the land permitted this distance to be walked by  Paleolithic man. There exists a Venus from 35,000 years ago, the Venus of the Hohle Fels Caves, carved out of a mammoth’s tusk. It is the oldest known example of figurative art.

Is the art in Chauvet from a related culture?

Similar Venus figurines with exaggerated sexual features and diminutive arms and legs have been found at a range of Stone Age archaeological sites stretching from the Pyrenees to southern Russia. These examples of early figurative art have been linked by some ( I know nothing about this) with the so-called Gravettian toolmaking culture dating to 25,000-29,000 years ago. An Austrian cave has produced such a Venus sculpture and a sculpture of a man with a lion’s head. At the Hohle  Fels site , small carvings of a mammoth and a horse were found from the same period. Pieced together was a flute made from the radius of a vulture. When all the pieces were in place, it produced the pentatonic scale which is still used in music. Beautiful Venuses can be seen in the Prehistoric Museum of Blauberen and in the Regional Museum of Prehistory, Grotte Aven d’Orgnac.

Neanderthal man is not thought to have made symbolic representations ,and it is now felt that another human species was alive at the same time.

In Werner’s film a paleotologist describes two principles which made paleolithic man see the world in a way unfamiliar to us:1. The principle of fluidity- man could shift with things contiguous in his environment, i.e., a tree could speak, a man could become an animal and visa versa. 2. The principle of permeability– there were no barriers between this world and the world of spirits, i.e., a shaman could pass through a wall to the world of spirits and the world of spirits can enter cave drawings. Asked what the essence of being human was, this same scientist replied, adaptability and memory to preserve the past for the benefit of the future.

In the Chauvet cave was what appeared to be an altar with a bear skull upon it. On the ground surrounding the altar were knobs of charcoal which could be burned, as if incense. Was the bear’s skull or spirit the guardian of the cave? If so, it has fulfilled its promise.

In an example of the way in which it is almost impossible for us to put ourselves into the mind of another culture, the story is told of an Aboriginal in Australia accompanied by an anthropologist. They arrive in a cave  containing ancient drawings which are disintegrating. The Aboriginal man is sad. He picks up a piece of chalk or rock from the ground and starts to retrace the pattern. The anthropologist is surprised and asks,’Why are you touching up these old drawings?’ The Aboriginal man replies, ‘I am not touching up the drawings; it is the hand of the spirit.’ Both are responding logically: the anthropologist responds on the basis of visual evidence in chronological time; the Abiriginal man responds on a symbolic level within a religious system.

It is suggested in the film that we are misnamed. We should not be called ‘homosapiens’ because we do not know very much. Rather, it would be more accurate to refer to us by one, prominent, enduring characteristic: ‘homospiritualis’.

The Artist of Chauvet  and the Leonardo bear:

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