Cave of Forgotten Dreams” Werner Herzog

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.

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