Meditations on “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”
Review by Nathaniel Bates, May 24, 2011
A 3-D Documentary Film directed by Werner Herzog, with Peter Zeitlinger, Cinematography; distributed by IFC Films (USA) and History Channel for TV, released April 29, 2011, running time, 89 minutes.
Werner Herzog is not a typical movie director, because he is extremely willing to take a risk. He took such a risk with his documentary 3-D film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog was willing to enter an old cave containing extreme levels of radon and carbon dioxide in order to film 32,000 year old wall paintings, which have been hidden from human eyes until the twentieth century.
The cave so privileged to contain prehistoric human art is called the “Chauvet Cave.” It was in 1994 that three hikers accidentally discovered this remarkable cave. Those discoverers were in for a surprise, because the cave paintings were astonishing works of art that can be compared with paintings of the Renaissance. These paintings date back to the early Cro-Magnon period in Europe, approximately 32,000 years before the present, even predating the paintings of the Lascaux Cave which go back only 17,000 years.
The paintings depicted animals with extreme realism, each seeming to tell a story that reflected philosophical themes of human existence. Animals were shown in motion, communicating subtle essences to the viewer, as if to reflect universal facets of the human condition as much as anything in the natural world. What was most astonishing to the viewer was the extent to which hunters, who regularly killed animals or avoided them, could paint the same animals with an air of empathy that suggests, well, humanity. Herzog’s entire film is an odd rebuke to the nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw view of prehistory.
Whether all of the Chauvet paintings are 32,000 years old or some of them are more recent is a matter of controversy. However, the fact remains that these paintings predate what paleontologists call the “Holocene Epoch,” the most recent 10,000 year period which historians consider to be the central focus of human history.
The distinction between the terms “Holocene Period” and “history” is an important one. The term “Holocene Epoch” evokes the world of the natural scientist, a world of eons of time in which the story of human civilization is but a mere flicker. However, to the modern historian, the term “historical period” describes the flowering of human social development. “History” for historians implies a social universe of symbols as important as any natural universe would be to a physical scientist.
When historians study history, they study documents which flow from written language. Even archeologists have traditionally tended to require some form of written language before they deem a society to be “historic” as opposed to being “prehistoric.” As such, they can only study history from the standpoint of symbols that can be abstracted and universalized. Symbols are universalized when they are made communicative in a way that can be grasped outside of a specific context. In other words, a “sphere” can be universalized while a particular round fruit can only be understood in a specific context that is experienced in the part of the world where it can be found.
Today’s globalized world has allowed for ever greater universalization of formerly specific ideas and commodities. Still, we can generally say that it has been true in the historical period that communicative knowledge has been divided into universals and specifics. Even today, with the Internet and mass communication, it is hard to globalize particulars beyond an image on a screen and some degree of understanding across cultures. Universals can be communicated through symbolism effectively, while specifics still require experience to complement any symbolism. The dichotomy between the world of symbols and the world of experience did not exist when all of history was “natural history,” yet it has existed since. It often defines the angst that humans feel in the midst of civilization.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams plays havoc with the entire distinction between natural history and the symbolic underpinnings of what historians call “history.” Applying the universal/specific dichotomy suggested above, humanity arose in the realm of natural history in which all experience was specific and contextual. Eventually, the human race entered the realm of history once symbolism allowed universals to be communicated beyond the confines of localized experience. The film addresses the question of when natural history became history, or when humanity became capable of universalizing a form of communication. Such communication was traditionally thought to separate humans from animals. The distinction between human beings and animals has, therefore, been a central question of philosophy throughout western thought.
Since the time of Darwin, however, intellectual thought has tended to emphasize the human/animal distinction less and less. Today primate and dolphin researchers are showing that traits previously thought to be unique to humans are in fact not confined to humans at all. Animals can communicate, often in very sophisticated ways. Even among Darwin’s critics on the right and left, there continues to be an erosion of the need to believe that humans are a radically distinct order of creation. His critics on the right reject the claim that animals evolved into humans and those on the left do not acknowledge the idea of a natural order based on survival of the fittest. Yet, even among those skeptical of Darwin, strict human/animal distinctions, upheld since the time of Aristotle, have softened somewhat in the western world. Among western families the dog often seems like an acknowledged member of the household, as if we were now leaving behind earlier dogmas that animals did not possess souls.
At the same time that the human/animal distinction has been downplayed, the new paradigm in biology raises the question: When does natural history become human history? We can acknowledge that chimpanzees communicate, as do dolphins. Many animals communicate. Clearly, however, only humans are able to communicate ideas from one generation to the next in a manner that can be represented in symbols that are potentially universal. Human symbolism transcends immediacy.
The symbols of any given culture can flow in lines of transmission that radiate outward to cultures not even remotely related, but which are capable of understanding those symbols. Indeed, written records and surviving artwork are signs of what might be considered human history, a history that allows for communication without depending entirely on culturally specific references. Although geologists may consider this period the “Holocene Epoch,” for social scientists and historians this is the period when rocks speak and when paper documents hold the key to the stories of people who would otherwise be dry bones.
Historians usually claim that the transition between natural history and history took place around 10,000 years ago, around the beginning of the Holocene age. Yet this distinction is problematic, because oral histories of indigenous peoples would not be considered “history” according to this periodization. Indeed, the Chauvet Cave art that Herzog brought to the big screen suggests another possible narrative. The film suggests that “history” may well be as old as Cro-Magnon man himself. If it is true, as the film suggests, that Neanderthals did not possess artistic sophistication (a disputed claim), then Cro-Magnon man might well be the first to use shapes and colors in order to communicate the inner person in a manner suggesting some form of symbolic language. At the very least, the sophistication of the paintings in the Chauvet and Lascaux Caves suggests that the artists intended their animal artwork to communicate their place in the cosmos to their descendants, and perhaps even to other tribal units who might have shared the caves as sacred sites. Thus, these caves can be considered historical, because they contain primary sources that tell a story, perhaps incomplete, yet not lost to history.
The distinction between human and animal should be less about having emotions or the capacity for empathy (given that animals possess emotions and empathy) than it is about the capacity to communicate and create historical records. Real history must take into account written and oral history, but after seeing Herzog’s film one must also include artistic history. Art can be considered a form of communication preserved for posterity. The sophisticated art of the Chauvet and Lascaux Caves suggests that deep emotions and sentiments about animals, humanity, and the meaning of existence were intended to be preserved as a record for the ages. At that point, natural history became history. Perhaps one day the historical record might be broadened to include the artistic remnants of Neanderthals; for now, however, the cave art of the Cro-Magnon appears to be our best marker for when art became sophisticated and nuanced.
Looking at the question from another perspective, we could say that the Holocene period may have been when agriculture began to replace hunting and gathering. Historical discourse, however, predates that time if we include art and sophisticated relics. If readers suspect that my impressions are wrong and feel that we really are looking at a world before history, then perhaps we are seeing merely our need for some signs of authentic communication from pictures on a cave wall. But the movement from the cave paintings to the invention of writing could well have been only a matter of humanity following an inclination to create history and not simply to live history. Either way one sees it, eons of time may have been lost to history, but the artists who created the Chauvet Cave paintings have certainly extended the backward reach of our human memory.
One leaves the Herzog film with a wish to know more. It may be that we will know more at some point. However, the French government has sealed the cave. Herzog’s crew may well have given us the last glimpse of this lost world. What is not lost, however, is the symbology of these paintings. If the cave art was intended to be universal, then the film communicated its message.
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