The Paleolithic time period, compared to other historic time periods, is mostly unknown because of the lack of written records. All that historians can study are the artifacts and art left behind by the people of the period. The Chauvet Cave was one of the most astonishing finds for historians as well as geologists and archeologists as the cave was practically sealed off for centuries after a landslide closed off its opening, leaving the interior untouched by humans and preserving the cave art and artifacts found within the large cavern. The cave opens up a whole new insight into the life of the people of the Paleolithic time as well as the animals found during this time when the world was much colder.
The Paleolithic era is often known as the Old Stone Age because it's characterized by the stone tools used at the time. Other than the cave paintings, the art found that dates back to this time are small figurines and carvings made of bone and ivory. The figures were generally of either animals or of the Venus figures which are statuettes of women that are usually rounded, putting emphasis on the anatomy that was associated with fertility, like large rounded breasts and exaggeration of the hips. One distinct ivory carving that was found was a flute, indicating that Paleolithic man may have been musical or the flute could have been used to announce events such as coming home or being successful in the hunt. During this time much of the land around the Alps was covered by a large glacier that was quite thick, leaving the sea levels lower than it is in the modern times. It was believed that Paleolithic men could have walked from modern day Paris to London by crossing the dry sea bed of the English Channel. The animals of the time were much larger and covered in thick fur, examples of which would be the mammoth and rhinoceroses. Predators, cave bears and cave lions, seemed to stay in caves, going out to obtain prey and returning to the cave with said prey to dine upon it.
While not much is known about these men, there are two main sites found in France that open the door of understanding to this time period through cave art. The Lascaux Cave was discovered in 1940. Adorning the walls were large drawings of bulls and horses. However the pictures were given a date of about 15,500 years ago by radiocarbon dating, putting it into the later period of the Paleolithic time. The cave was previously open to the public but the breathing was causing mold to grow along the walls and despite the attempts by the government to keep it open with the use of filters, it was closed to the public to maintain the cave paintings.
The Chauvet Cave was accidentally discovered in 1994 by three men — Christian Hilaire, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, and Jean-Marie Chauvet — and after doing research to determine the age, was found to be the oldest cave paintings in the world at about 32,000 years old. Skeptics believed at first that it was fake because the paintings were much too clear to be that old. However, the small amount of decay is present in the painting as well as the intact skulls of the various animals such as cave bears. After the government took control of it in 1997, a system was put into place to preserve the cave. They installed a solid door at the front of the cave and set up a security system. To enter the cave requires a set of complex steps during which those who want to take the trip into the cave have to wear a suit and shoes that have not been in contact with the outside world and generally only allowed inside for a short period of time. Within the cave there is a walk way in order to preserve the geologic features as well as the remains that have been found along the calcite deposits.
In 2010, Werner Herzog released the ninety minute documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which was a look inside the Chauvet Cave which is closed off to the public. Fairly well known scientists such as Gilles Tosello, Jean Clones, and Nicholas Conard took part in the project allowed by the French government. It was shot in 3D to allow the images to come out crisp. There are only two times throughout the year that field work is permitted to occur within the cave. The film shows how utterly cut off from the outside world the cave is. They describe it as if they are almost invading a private area. They talk of the silence in which they can hear their own heart beat. The film won nine awards – In 2011 Best Documentary (DFWFCA, LAFCA, NYFCC, WAFCA) and Best Non-Fiction Film (NYFCC) and in 2012 Best Documentary (KCFCC, NSFA, OFCS, VFCC)' - in total of the twelve for which it was nominated.
The film generally got great reviews about how well it seemed to grasp the awe of the cave. It allowed the general public to view this side of history that was previously shut off to public eye; be it by the landslide that had closed off the entrance, sealing the cave, or by the French government's effort to prevent growth of mold like that at the Lascaux Cave. The only complaint seems to really be the ending of the film in which Herzog goes on about the impact of humans on the environment with the warmth coming from our factories causing a change in climate and genetically seeming to cause more albino crocodiles to breed in the area as well as his random moments such as when he talks with a professional perfumer.
Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times claimed that "though 'Cave' has random Herzogian elements that come out of nowhere — a master perfumer asked to comment on Paleolithic air, a glimpse of albino crocodiles at a nearby nature park — the director is excellent at contextualizing these venerable wall paintings, at discussing them with a variety of scientists in a way that allows us to think about them with a perspective we otherwise might not have.
Another brief problem, which I agree with, was brought up by Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post. It was that of the musical score overpowering the visuals making it seem almost like a battle of the beauties; art and music. "The only false note in "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is a musical score that too often threatens to overwhelm the soaring visuals on screen with a loud, over-insistent choir. But keep your eyes on those visuals, and reap supreme rewards that last long past the film's modest running time.
Much of the cave cannot be walked through because of the need to preserve the fragile calcite deposits, the tracks left by the various animals that had gone through the cave, including human, as well as the charcoal left There are also parts of the walls that have thick dark marks behind by man. where man would scrape his torch in order to relight it from friction. In fact there is one place where a human foot print is beside a wolf footprint. It brings to mind the question of when dogs became domesticated. It is possible that the wolf walked with the human but there is also the possibility that the tracks were made many years apart as it is nearly impossible to determine when the tracks were made.
As one enters the cave one of the first things spotted is an arrangement of what seems to be large red dots. In reality, the large red dots are found to be handprints made by the same person by painting the palm of the hand with red ochre and stamping the hand down on the stone. Further into the cave there is another set of handprints that seem to have been washed away by running water of some sort that rushed down during a storm or overflowed from the nearby river. It was determined that all the recurring handprints were made by the same person because of a characteristic of the little finger. In the Gallery of Hands is a depiction of a panther with its spotted coat. This is important because it was believed that most cave paintings were simply of what men hunted. Also there are drawings of some sort of insect as well as what seems like either a moth or a butterfly. East of the Gallery of Hands is the Cactus Gallery. The entrance of the gallery is important to the cave itself simply because of the small image of a mammoth. This was the first thing that was seen when the cave was first discovered.
Also close to the front of the entrance is the Alcove of the Yellow Horses which features a few of the red ochre handprints. There are also two small yellow horse heads among various red signs. This color is rarely seen throughout the rest of the cave. However it is seen quite a bit in the Lascaux Cave. It can be inferred that possibly the yellow color was used at a later time than the red and black since the Lascaux paintings were painted later in the Paleolithic time period than those of Chauvet Cave.
A characteristic found throughout most of the cave drawings is that some seem blurred or that the animal has various legs. When they shined the flashlight over the drawings, the scientists inferred that they drew the animals in such a way that by torch light it almost seemed as if the animals moved across the canvas that was created by scraping the wall until the lighter color rock showed. However, by doing this, the older drawings were destroyed along with some scratches made by cave bears. This is called the idea of superposition.
This almost three-dimensional imagery was seen best on the north wall of the Hillaire Chamber, which is fairly far back in the cave, where one would see the Panel of Cervids and the Panel of the Horses. The Panel of Cervids is covered with quickly sketched images of bison, horses, and cervids, which are simply deer. Below that panel is a bison that is turned to the right. However there are multiple legs adorning the animal to either create the effect of movement or to give a false perspective of two of them side by side. Perhaps one the most famous pictures found in the cave would be the Panel of Horses. There are several images within the panel, the horses being in the center. The heads and forequarters were artistic and shaded well while the rest of the horse was simply outlined. However the last horse was redrawn once the scene was done with a piece of flint to accent its contours. Left of the horses are well drawn and shaded aurochs. Beneath the horses are two rhinoceroses that seem to be facing off, perhaps for fighting for dominance or for mating.
As one travels further into the cave, it seems like the number of bones increases, the most numerous being those of cave bears. In the Chamber of the Skull, historians were slightly shocked at what was found. There was a flat stone sitting there with a skull of a cave bear on top of it. Fragments of charcoal were found below the skull and were carbon dated back to about the time of the drawings. However it could not be traced back that the skull was placed there during the time. That being said, some historians still wonder if it could perhaps be early indications that man may have been pagan and that the skull was some kind of homage to life and death. It is believed that like shamans that Paleolithic man may have believed that the spirit world lay directly beside the real world and that it was easy for the spirits to cross into their real world.
Found directly North of the Chamber of the Skull was a well preserved human footprint. From this footprint, it was determined that by comparing it to the footprint of a modern day European that the print could have belonged to a male that was approximately 4.3 feet tall and around the age of nine. The only place in the cave where actual depictions of humans is the Megaceros Gallery heading into the End Chamber as well as one striking depiction in the End Chamber. In the Megaceros Gallery there are simple carvings of the pubic triangle of a woman. The depiction in the End Chamber is on a hanging rock next to the West wall. It's of the forequarters of a bison with what seems to look like the bottom half of a Venus figurine beneath it.
The End Chamber answered a question that various people had: did the lion of the time have a mane? Based on the images it is now agreed that they did not have manes. The West Wall is also called the Wall of the Lions for the depictions of the felines. The characteristic of drawing the animal so it seemed to show motion is also clearly seen in the Panel of the Rhinoceroses. Below this panel is the Niche of the horse, where a horse seems to almost be part of the wall for it looks like the wall has been carved into a horse shape.
In the film, the cultures of rock art were compared. One highlighted was that of the Australian Aborigine. In this culture they took the time making the rock art. For centuries they would touch up the art so as to preserve the art of their ancestors. It keeps with the tradition of the spirit world being connected to the real world because they believed that the spirits were the ones painting the art, not the person who is doing the touching up.
I, personally, enjoyed the film. Herzog certainly shows the beauty of this art left over thousands of years in the sweeping he does over the walls of the chambers. He takes the time to go over how important each panel is to the knowledge of these people. He describes the aspect of various ideas such as how the art was done with the law of superposition and the spiritual idea that the wall was an entrance into the spirit world and how the images seem to move. He even goes so far as to claim it's almost like you can hear the noise of the horses whinnying and the crash of the rhinos as they engage in their battle. Balancing out simply looking over the art, the history of the area is told by various historians and comparisons of various other sites are incorporated into the final product.
My only problem is the random almost tree-hugging end of the film where Herzog speaks of human intervention into the wild causing the albino crocodile population to increase at a site a few miles from Chauvet Cave because of the warm water coming from the cooling of the reactors. This seems to have no real connection to the idea of the film unless one thinks about how the Lascaux Cave was closed off to the public due to the mold that was growing along the walls due to the breathing of the many tourists. I also, as stated earlier, agree with Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post that the musical score used with the imagery seems to be overpowering the sheer amazement brought on by the images. It almost seems like a battle to see which would be more beautiful, the choir and music or the art.
Despite the small troubles I found with the film, I would definitely recommend this to anyone who is interested in art or history. I personally learned how the dynamic of life in the time was laid out and I learned that humans did not actually live down in the cave despite it possibly being a haven from the cold conditions of the time period; that they may have seen the cave almost like a sanctuary for their beliefs. I also learned that in all actuality that humans were not primitive as most seem to believe. They had to have been intelligent to be able to draw out these masterpieces and survive, let alone be able to make the flutes or stone carvings that have been found in various archeological sites.
This is the only film that highlights the cave art of Chauvet Cave. That being said, there are various books about the Chauvet Cave and cave art in general. Most of the books about Chauvet Cave are written by Jean Clottes who spent quite a long time studying the cave It is possible to find information about Chauvet Cave in a few other books but they are mostly about cave art in general with what seems like a main highlight on Lascaux Cave. This may be due to the fact that it is a well known cave and that people tend to know more about it. What was previously hidden behind rocks down in a cave was the door to new knowledge of a previously unknown world of Paleolithic man and the animals that lived along side with man. Chauvet Cave was that one discovery that changed knowledge of the Paleolithic era. It opened up evidence that Paleolithic man could have been spiritual and that they were in fact intelligent people, not the dumb primitive people that was previously believed by much of the general public. The Cave of Forgotten Dreams opened the public's eye to what Paleolithic man really was in his time. It showed that despite previous notions that man could adapt to his surroundings and was aware of how the Earth worked around him. It makes one wonder if perhaps we are the ones who are falling back into a primitive world.
Amanda Saunders' bibliography is available upon request.