The Moviegoer: "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" (Herzog, 2011)

Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.

Have you ever wondered — dreamed — about what prehistoric humanity was like? Our popular culture has had plenty of imaginative representations of the Paleolithic man, be it Fred Flintstone or, more recently, Year One. In most cases, the running joke is the doltish ineptitude of the Neanderthals in comparison to evolved modern man (i.e., “so easy a caveman can do it”). But in acclaimed filmmaker Werner Herzog’s latest breathtaking documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, we are invited to explore the Chauvet Cave in southern France, which contains what is believed to be the earliest known cave paintings yet to be discovered. Herzog becomes our winsome guide to the world’s oldest known art display.

Scientists are saying that around 30,000 years ago, a man used some coloring of a sort to handprint the wall multiple times. The handprints are accompanied by countless drawings, though we’re unsure if the handprints and the drawings are from the same artist. If the archaeological estimates are correct, then the images would be twice the age of the previous oldest artwork. The apparent age of the cave’s art is stunning, adding an element of awe and mystery to our touristic interest in the documentary. It’s as if given an even more ancient ancestral origin, we might better understand ourselves. Herzog’s film, in this sense, is a kind of vehicle of discovery through ancient-historical anthropology.

What’s most thrilling, then, about what we discover in Chauvet Cave is that uniquely and essentially human capacity for imaginative expression. Interestingly, the images in the cave — which consist of bears, horses, panthers, and other wild creatures — display plenty of elements that support specific forms of communication and interpretation. In other words, they are not merely replications of the animals themselves. There are depictions of aggression, allusions to movement and animation, and an awareness of sexuality and reproduction.

In short, our paleolithic ancestors were creators. There was some sense of artistic cultivation in the land before time.

In a compelling interview toward the end of the documentary, one of the professional researchers comments:

Humans have been described in many ways… for a while it was “homo sapiens” — “the man who knows” — I don’t think it’s a good definition at all… we don’t know much. I would think “homo spiritualis.”

Given the nature of Chauvet Cave’s artifacts, it seems evident as to why he might say that humankind is more defined by spirituality. It is characteristic of sentient beings to have a perceiving self-awareness or self-consciousness. And, further, it seems equally evident that what we human creatures have been most aware of throughout the ages is that all surrounds us inspires a sense of awe, of worship.

In what seems like a follow up to this point, Herzog later asks the same scholar two penetrating questions: “Do you think that the paintings in the Chauvet Cave were somehow the beginnings of the modern human soul? What constitutes humanness?” The scholar responds:

Humanness is a very good adaptation within the world. Man’s society… needs to [adapt] to the landscape, to the other beings, to the animals, to other human groups… and to communicate something. To communicate and inscribe [their memories] on very specific and odd things like walls, like pieces of wool, like bones… This is the invention of communion… but with the invention of the “figuration,”… it is a way of communication between humans with the future, to advocate the past, to transmit information that is better than [basic oral communication].

What of this “communion” among humanity through creative artifacts? If in the act of creation there is a signal of union, what could be the tie that binds humanity but a Creator?

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