Only “cave men”?
Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the multiple-award-winning documentary exploring ancient wall art in the Chauvet cave of southern France. It should be on everyone’s “must see” list.
Written, directed, and narrated by Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is unabashed in its suggestion of what we may learn about human beings from these over-20,000 year-old drawings and paintings. The film is a journey into the soul of humankind, a spiritual reverie and meditation, as even the scientists and critics who make up the “cast” agree.
The wall art in the Chauvet cave is of various species of animals, some, like mammoths and cave bears, now extinct, others, such as lions and rhinoceroses, which no longer roam the forests of southern France. The paintings lack nothing of what you might expect of any of the great masters of Western art. They are rich in color, perspective, depth, mood, and drama – animals fighting, fleeing, and courting, for example. The Chauvet artists might have studied at the finest schools in Paris or New York, so exquisite and breath-taking are their works.
Except, of course, they were only “cave men.”
Challenging our view of humankind
I found the camera work in this beautiful film amazing. The team did its best to get as close as possible to the paintings – access is limited by a walkway from which none may depart – and to use lighting to reproduce what might have been the conditions under which this art was composed. Individual pieces are considered from various angles, and important details are carefully noted. Werner Herzog narrates the account and interviews scientists, art historians, archaeologists, and others who have worked on this art.
The experience seems to have had a jarring effect on Mr. Herzog and others involved in the project. The narrative roams over the aesthetic and spiritual implications of the art, seeking to establish a connection between the Chauvet people and our own generation. Like them, we have dreams. We are impressed and sometimes in awe over the world of creation. We want to express, share, and record our feelings and experiences. We want to connect with whatever is larger and more permanent than our own little lives.
Mr. Herzog suggests that the Chauvet art should lead us to cease referring to human beings as homo sapiens – “man who knows.” A better way of thinking about humankind, he explains, would be as homo spiritualis – “spiritual man.”
And, indeed, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a spiritual experience. It is designed to be such, and it achieves this encounter with transcendence with remarkable skill.
As Susie and I talked afterwards we agreed on three implications deriving from this film.
First, human beings are not animals. Human beings have a spirit. They understand and can express beauty. They have a sense of responsibility toward the animal world, a need to “conserve” the very creatures they consume or consecrate as sacrifices to their gods. Their wonder at and even love for these animals, and yet their sense of somehow being more than animals – caretakers or preservers of all that is good in animals – is clearly evoked in these beautiful paintings.
The people who created the Chauvet art seem more like image-bearers of God than just up from monkeys or apes.
Second, the brilliance of these paintings challenges existing assumptions about the evolutionary development of human beings. The people of the Chauvet cave were not the knuckle-dragging, big-browed oafs you might encounter in a Gary Larsen cartoon or a Geico commercial. They were true, full, lively, creative, brilliant human beings, like the most brilliant people we know in our own day. They lacked nothing in the way of imagination or skill, but only in technology. Were they alive today, their art and culture would be as enduring as anything you or I cherish.
Finally, Susie and I agreed that art is a powerful medium for sharing experiences, expressing convictions and emotions, and communicating truth. The Chauvet paintings say, in glorious and unmistakable beauty, “these creatures matter. Here, look at them, wonder at their majesty and dignity, treat them with respect, use them with gratitude, conserve their importance by every possible means.”
The most elegant argument of an environmental scientist cannot communicate such messages as clearly or compellingly as the wall art in Chauvet cave.
A strange “Postscript” ends the film with the suggestion of a warning about failing to heed the lessons we may learn from the past, even from people as distant as the Chauvet cave artists.
Here is a film you can watch as a family or with some friends. Cave of Forgotten Dreams will astonish you. It will cause your own, perhaps too-long dormant, aesthetic sense to stir, and it will make you long to become a more fully spiritual human being.
Related texts: Genesis 1.26-28; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 10.3-5
A conversation starter: “Why do you suppose the people involved in this project were so struck by the spiritual dimension of these works of art?”
T. M. Moore, Principal