I cannot recall how it ws that my friend leant me ‘ The Mind in the Cave’ by David Lewis-Williams as a source of ideas for my final project, but it is utterly brilliant. I am reading it slowly as I have to keep stopping to digest the mind-boggling ideas this large book is littered with. I ws so excited that I had to get a copy of ‘The Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ by the brilliant Werner Herzog.
It is mostly concerned with Chauvet Cave, discovered in the Arceche as recently as 1994. I grew up with the idea that old art is primitive, childlike, irrelevant. How times change. The big question is why artists would pant and sculpt in the darkness? The standard response from archaeologists has long been ‘ritual’, a term that covers much and means they know nothing about it.
All of a sudden I have found a subject that seems to press lots of my buttons and seems to be linking up with so much of my own historical research. About 45,000 years ago Europe was home to Neandertals and Homo sapiens; a mere 10,000 years later, the latter, ie our direct ancesters were the only ones left. These two races were significantly different, the former the traditional caveman with jutting forehead and the two could not cross breed. The assumption is that they were wiped out, but it seems the new kids on the block were just better at hunting, technology, social organisation and language and seem to have just survived better in the ice age.
Homo Sapiens arrived in Europe with fully developed language, a wide range of tools, planned hunting, fishing, and art. But their art is not childish noodling, but at Chavet they are utterly amazing. Horses depicted around a water source in the cave. Bisoon wiht 8 legs, showing animation, and lots more. It is stunning stuff. They found marks where torches were wiped on the wall to keep them burning. The tiny pieces of ash have been dated to 28,000 years ago. Handprints in ochre are from a man with damaged little finger, so he can be found working deeper in the cave, he is over 6 foot tall, impressive enough today.
There are footprints of a wolf and a child. Were they friends? Was the wolf stalking the child? Is there no connection between them at all?
A slab of stone has a bear skull facing the entrance. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
There is no sign that humans ever lived there. It is mostly bear bones, with some scratches on the wall before and after the paintings were made, which adds a level of danger to the artists and viewers. Maybe the bear scratches inspired our ancestors to decorate the walls. O maybe they thought they drew strength from the bears’ marks. The pictures show movement – multiple legs suggest this, open mouths – they are speaking.
The French archeologists were fascinated by the place and fascinating to listen to. As other caves are now damaged by mould growing from too many visitors’ breaths, these caves will only be open to scientists so Werner was very privileged to get in at all. They are building an exact replica nearby so the rest of us can have the experience without causing any damage.
But how can we understand what they meant, why they exist? By looking at hunter gatherer commmunities that survived into modern times, such as the Australian aborigines and the south African San. We need to look at their shamanistic practices, and they seem incredibly similar to early christianity and to early Greece. They healed by laying on of hands, they believed in worlds above and below the earth, they believed they gained great energy from touching the art.
It’s really amazing. But what is really amazing is that I have personal experience with these creatures. Many years ago I got lost whilst hiking in an old logging area in Victoria, Australia. Our group got spread out and I lost contact with them. I saw a Cro Magnon bull. It was as clear as day, it was large, deep brown and ochre coloured with huge shoulders. I could hear it moving, and could see its footprints. I knew it didn’t exist, and yet I followed it. I lost it of course, and spent the night alone in the bush, with very little food. The next day I found my way to safety whilst the area was scoured with friends and police – I was officially missing for 26 hours, a club record.
What was the bull about? It was French, at the time of the French nuclear testing, so we all hated the country. I had no interest in ancient art, or livestock of any sort. I can still recall what it looked like, and I have still no idea why it happened.
Maybe I am about to find out.