Werner Herzog’s riveting documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams was greeted with universal acclaim when it was released in cinemas this spring. He’d been given unique access to the magnificent suit of cave paintings that were unearthed at Chauvet in the Ardèche, north of the Riviera in 1994. The paintings that were discovered there were so sophisticated that all our ideas of what Stone Age man was capable of had to be completely re-imagined, as articulated by Judith Thurman, one of the brightest stars in the New Yorker’s stellar firmament (here).
Initially though, as Fintan O’Toole argues here, the find appeared to produce more questions about our Palaeolithic ancestors than it did answers. First; how is it that the paintings at Chauvet, which date to around 31,000 years ago, seem to be evidence of an already completed tradition?
Since then though, finds have surfaced in Namibia which date to 25,000 ya, in Fumane in Italy dating to 34,000 ya, and in Australia which date to at least 30,000 ya, and probably to 40,000 and earlier. And they all show evidence of exactly the kind of trial and error that we should have expected.
More to the point, cave paintings were part of a wider explosion in our evolution which dates to around 45,000 ya. It was then that we began to ritually bury our dead, to produce the thousands of “Venus” figurines that have been found throughout the whole of Eurasia, to wear personal ornamentation, and to trade, all of which are evidence for the advent of language. The cave paintings at Chauvet aren’t the beginning of this process, they’re its culmination.
Second he asked; given that cave paintings weren’t intended as hunting manuals, yet depict only animals (there are less than 5 or 6 humans in any of the thousands of cave paintings so far discovered) what exactly were these cave paintings used for?
In a word, belief. Cave paintings are yet more evidence that it was then that we first began to practice belief.
The best way to think of cave paintings is to see them as functioning in the same way that stained glass windows do in a Christian church. They clearly refer to, and are part of the rituals performed there in front of them. But with only the images to go on, we can never know what those rituals were. All we can say is that they must have been of fundamental importance, for them to have taken so much care and trouble in producing them.
All of which only adds to the allure of the film. And don’t worry if you missed your chance to see it in 3D. All that the 3D does is to give an inherently fascinating film an impressive gloss. It’s the film’s content that captivates, not the delivery.