Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I just saw the documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog.  Several people recommended the movie to me and I recently went to see it, by now only showing at the discount theater.  Originally it was playing in 3D which would have been interesting but I saw the 2D version.

I know very little about prehistoric or Paleolithic art which was the reason I wanted to see it.  The movie was interesting in the fact that it showed a close up and comprehensive view of caves that are not open to the public.  However it got me thinking about so many different things that I left the movie with more questions than answers, I have been trying to read more and find more information on this period in art since I saw it.  It is fascinating and I recommend watching this.


Wall painting with Horses, Chauvet Cave, France c-30,000 B.C.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams tells the story of the Chauvet Caves in France, apparently this was a relatively recent discovery.  Explorers found this cave in 1994, the cave entrance had been sealed for thousands of years due to a rock slide, which is why the art is still in such a pristine condition.  It is thought to be the oldest cave art in existence, dated around 30,000 B.C.  That over 30,000 years ago there were fairly sophisticated societies making art and music is a difficult concept to wrap my mind around.  There are a number of objects, weapons, altars, paintings, very small sculptures and musical instruments which survive from this Paleolithic era which give historians and archaeologists a good amount of information about daily life.


The documentary explains that this was during the Ice Age and that today's humans (Homo Sapiens) lived at the same time as Neanderthals, a separate species.  There are no art related artifacts found that were created by Neanderthals, the assumption is made that they didn't create any.  Therefore it would seem that the creativity exhibited in early man is one thing that set us apart.  Also early man lived side by side with a variety of animals: enormous cave bears, lions, rhinos and wooly mammoths to name a few.  I hadn't realized lions and rhinos were living in Europe then but there are many images of them.


The movie was interesting but there wasn't much of a reason or hypothesis given as to who created these paintings and why.  In Chauvet Cave it doesn't appear that this was decorative only, but would rather have had a significance, perhaps religious.  There is nothing suggesting people lived in the areas where paintings were, but an object that may have been a type of an altar was found.

I was struck by the paintings of the horses, they appear to suggest perspective which astonished me.  Is this a herd of horses?  Does it represent one horse running or moving?  No one explained it and perhaps no one can.

 Wall painting of Reindeer, Lascaux Cave, France, c-15,000 B.C.


Before this the oldest cave paintings I knew of were in Lascaux, also in France and in Altamira in Spain.  These are both thought to be from approximately 15,000 B.C., which was already hard enough to fathom.  One thing all the paintings have in common is the representation of a variety of animals and sometimes a hunter.

Perhaps the paintings told a story of what happened (such as a hunt) or were a way to pray to god or their gods for a successful hunt.  One of the researchers in the movie suggested that the people who created this believed that a spirit was guiding them to paint.  In one type of cave painting at Chauvet there were many hand prints used as art, created by a man who was 6 feet tall, while that is tall by today's standards that would have been gigantic at the time.  I have been thinking that someone (a priest or priestess figure) would have been designated as the painter, if it was believed that the artist was a medium for a spirit, then probably not everyone would have been allowed to paint.

 Wall painting of Bison, Altamira Cave, Spain, c-15,000 B.C.


How were they created?  Perhaps the paintings were created using hollowed bones to blow pigments on the walls or brushed directly on the surface.  In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, it is mentioned that there were two series of paintings made, approximately 5,000 years apart.  To me this is another staggering figure, but it is also telling that it had long been thought of as a sacred space.


One of the more incredible details was a flute that was found in pieces near the cave.  A scientist put it together and then had a copy made.  It was made using a pentatonic scale (not knowing much of musical scales I had to look that up).  However the holes to make notes were not random and definitely used this musical scale which is widely used today, the same man who had a copy made played The Star Spangled Banner on the flute. 


I think what struck me the most were the ideas in their art that came about much later in art, by artists who couldn't possibly have ever seen the Chauvet cave.  Horses painted in perspective that wasn't rediscovered for millennium and animals carefully painted with shading and texture.  Animals shown as "moving" by having extra sets of legs made me think of Futurism and Cubism.  There was a hybrid creature painted with the head of a bull like the Minotaur from Greek mythology, later used by Picasso as well.  The art had elements of realism, naturalism and abstraction and all of these themes resurfaced in art throughout the ages.


There may not be many physical remains of man from the Paleolithic era but the fact that each civilization builds upon another became eerily apparent when looking at paintings created over 30,0000 years ago.

Additional resources:
Clottes, Jean.  Chauvet Cave (ca. 30,000 B.C.) | ThematicEssay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Tedesco, Laura Anne.  Lascaux (ca. 15,000 B.C.) | Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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