Here is the fantastic news: one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, Werner Herzog, was granted rare access to Chauvet Cave and filmed the interior in 3-D. Chauvet Cave is of course famous for its 30,000 year old art — it is a spectacular display of human creativity and is probably the result of shamanic activities.
The movie, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” is being premiered at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. Here is the trailer for the 95 minute film, which I can hardly wait to see:
Here is the bad news: Herzog has either done no research on humans living 30,000 years ago or he has been given some bad information. In a recent Spiegel interview, Herzog was asked how he viewed the cave:
This is the birth of the modern human soul. The artists are like us, not like the Neanderthals, who had no culture — and who incidentally were still roaming the landscape at the time the paintings were made.
While one might be able to argue that the Chauvet paintings represent the earliest fluorescence of what we consider to be modern forms of art, it is doubtful that the paintings mark the beginning of behavioral modernity. Soul beliefs certainly pre-date the Chauvet paintings by tens of thousands of years.
As for Neanderthals, they definitely had “culture” — known generally to archaeologists as the Mousterian and Chatelperronian — and it is doubtful whether they were “still roaming the landscape” at the time the Chauvet paintings were made. There may have been a few Neanderthals living 30,000 years ago in isolated areas of Spain or other refugia, but most had disappeared by that time or been assimilated into human populations. Herzog’s Neanderthal comment should get John Hawks‘ blood boiling.
Let’s hope that Herzog does not narrate the film, as is his wont when he does documentaries (i.e., Grizzly Man). If he does, one might consider ignoring most of what he says and simply sitting in awe of what you see.
Update: This brief review in the Guardian states the film is “stunning,” despite doubts about Herzog’s “Teutonic observations” that link the paintings to dreams. Herzog may not be too far afield, given that shamans experiencing altered states of consciousness similar to dreaming were probably responsible for the Chauvet paintings.