I have the privilege of being able to attend a lot of movie press screenings and normally they involve superheroes like the Green Hornet or Kick Ass. Mercifully, I went to something history related yesterday and I mean – ancient history. German director Werner Herzog had exclusive access to the Chauvet caves in France where the oldest painings by human hands cover the walls.
Blocked a by a rock fall, the cave was re-discovered a few years ago and the images are pristine. Mammals long extinct like hairy rhinos and mammoths are depicted as are bison, which once roamed Europe. These images were painted in the Ice Age when England was linked to Europe, the sea was 300 feet lower and humans competed with neanderthals for primate domination.
But what is extraordinary is the complexity of the images and the fact that they appeared to have been added to over a period of thousands of years. The lack of human bones suggest the cave was some kind of temple and most spookily there is a bear skull on a stone platform with evidence of burning – possibly incense burning – around the object.
Herzog notes the footprint of a wolf next to an eight year old human child and wonders whether the child was being stalked as prey, or if they walked together ‘as friends’ or if the prints were made hundreds or even thousands of years apart. There are skulls of mammals all over the cave floor and many have been covered in beautiful calcified deposits.
To see the first images drawn by our ancestors and clear evidence of an awareness of their surroundings is breathtaking. Strangely, only one depiction of a human and it’s the lower half of a woman painted on a long piece of rock jutting down from the ceiling. More disturbingly for us is the close presence of what looks like a bison head against her thigh.
The archaeologists don’t think humans actually occupied the cave but used it as some kind of temple. This is a practice that extends all the way through classical antiquity and in to the Middle Ages. The cave at Royston in England is believed to have been a Templar sanctuary and is covered in the most bizarre religious imagery. We can identify and tell stories about those biblical images. But what our ancestors drew on the Chauvet caves is so far remote that Herzog is left conjecturing at their meaning.
He emphasises the distance between us and those early ancestors – some of whom were quite tall at six foot it turns out – but there are elements of more recent times. We still have venerated altars. Caves have continued to hold a fascination throughout history. And, through the works of Disney for example, we still anthropomorphosize animals giving ducks and dogs human voices.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is out later this year and I can’t recommend it enough. Herzog is a veteran of the New German film movement of the 1960s and 1970s and his dialogue may seem a tadge pretentious to younger ears but forgive him, he is a giant and for this movie deserves our respect once again.