From times forgotten...
A 35,000 year old red bison painting stands tall and true in a cave in Altamira, Spain. The
thin and wavy horns are juxtaposed against the bison's tall hump and passive stance. In Cueva de las Manos, a rock carries the outlines of human hands imprinted some 9500 years ago making it seem like the humans are reaching out across the expanse of time from within the rock. From Paleolithic man to aboriginals of Australia, cave painting began at a time we no longer remember and survived till the 1960s.
Who were they? Why did they paint these creatures? Was it to teach each other about their surroundings? Was it to worship that which surrounded them? Was it an obsession with things that threatened and hunted them? Did they live in the caves? Science offers some insight in the way of facts but somehow there seems to be a gulf between man then and man now.
Cave paintings are found almost everywhere in the world. This ancient form of expression is found in higher up altitudes of hills and well protected rock formations. Some of the oldest artworks survived by a stroke of luck and not as a consequence of conscious preservation. Most of the subjects of such caves are wild animals (strangely no plants) and hand prints of the humans themselves. The caves are usually dark, vast and contain remains of wild animals and humans as well. Who came first? Who came after?
In the movie The cave of forgotten dreams, Werner Herzog captures one such cave – The Chauvet cave in France. The paintings seem evocative full of an eerie connection, speaking to us through spirit and emotion.
'Do they dream? Do they cry at night? What are their families?' ~Werner Herzog
They used long wooden sticks burnt at the end to score the rocks. Some of these sketches and paintings were six feet long. Imagine the movement of the body, the physicality with which one moves their arms to create strong strokes on the undulating rock surface. They flicker of the torches as it illuminates the bumps and crevices creating eddies of light and shadow. Why draw so big? Was it for worship? Was it a lecture of some sort, the images meant for instruction? Or was it an expression or a vehicle to communicate the spirit of things? The paintings try to capture both the feeling and motion of the animals. The first traces of animation are depicted by the 'artist' as he draws a rhino in succession, as if it was charging its target. The depiction of animals fighting and their horns locked is also common. The animals probably looked like they were moving as the light from the torches waned and waxed spontaneously.
In the caves, there were sometimes broken flutes, idols and skulls of animals intended for worship. The mother goddess figure with exaggerated anatomy (called Venus) depicting sexuality and fertility was found in some of the caves. It's surprising that the details of what our representations of sexuality have changed but the conversations and stories have lived across time. Are we just hosts to the collective imagination of ideas? Somehow they seem to have evolved with us like our biology. Do we escape it? Ever? There is something so powerfully human about such caves. Something deeply spiritual.
We know little, next to nothing about the people who made these paintings. They had music, made Jewelry and worshiped a feminine goddess and made paintings. If we strip away the details of paleolithic time, such as the clothing and the fire torches, we could mistake them for modern man. Was it just one person? Were there many who contributed to these works of art? Was being able to draw for the few or was it a skill someone gained over time? The artists had no live model, no Pinterest references. They relied on memory and their senses entirely. Were the caves permanent residences or occupied occasionally during hunting trips? We don't know.
These paintings, the music, etc. are a connection. A connection to the stories and mythologies we have been carrying around as people. Are we them? Are they us? Time separates us but our expressions, aspirations and thoughts seem to be continuous. Do we feel today when we engage in making and play, the way the cave painters felt? Transported? Carried away by the spirit? Has man's search for meaning stayed eternal in spite of the many changes? Are we simply one continuous story separated by the gulf of time? Maybe we are the torch bearers in a long line of torch breakers? Who will we pass this on to? Will we pass it on at all?
There are many questions we can ask, fill the gaps with our imagination and use science to build up a picture. What is important is not the lack of details but the presence of evidence. If our ancestors hadn't made those sketches, what evidence would we even have of their lives? The cave paintings don't simply give us facts about time and place. It shines a light on who they could have been. This their lure, the fancy to find our past and the same thing that propels us into the future. Our stories are much like our ancestors, in search of something in a harsh world. Question is, what are we going to leave behind in our memory? What will we leave behind as the mark of this time?