World’s oldest cave paintings to become screen stars

A 3D documentary takes us inside the closed cavern of Chauvet in the south of France, where lions, mammoths and bears painted by our ancestors 32,000 years ago come to life.

'It is as if the modern human soul awakened here,' says Werner Herzog, the German filmmaker who has convinced the French authorities to let him film inside the ancient Chauvet cave, from which the public are barred.

Nudging past stalactites and stalagmites, into the deep, dripping darkness, Herzog takes his audience on a three dimensional tour of an extraordinary place we will never visit ourselves. There are bear skulls on the floor, and the scratches of wild animals on the walls. But the main attraction is something more mysterious: probably the first human art we have uncovered, found here in 1994 in this vast underground cavern.

Human hands dipped in natural die have marked the walls, and fingers have traced the outline of a horse in the clay. Beneath us,lies a boy's footprint.

Further inside, where they must have been drawn in the dark, are the vivid crowds of animals – lions, bison, panthers, owls and more. Then a 30-foot panel of horses, painted with multiple legs so that they look as if they are moving.

'Like proto-cinema,' Herzog tells us.

Unlike later examples of cave painting, in Lascaux for example, there are no depictions of hunting here – in fact the only human elements in the pictures are the legs of a woman, interlaced with a drawing of a bison, and the handprints.

The animals, which are not stylised or painted in a way we would judge today as 'primitive', are the stars of the this show. The cave's explorers, and Herzog himself, found the pictures very exciting because they seem to show such intimacy with the animals.

In this, they have something in common with a much later artefact: Britain's only piece of Palaeolithic animal carving, a galloping horse etched onto a piece of bone found in a Derbyshire cave, now in the British Museum.

'It is, by any standards, a work of genius,' believes the TV historian and archaeologist Neil Oliver. 'It is composed of just a few confident lines and yet the end result is an image of a living breathing animal.'

Close encounter
For Oliver, the way his job allows him to get close to these objects and imagine their creators is entirely positive.

'To come so close to the way some individual, man or woman, was thinking all those millennia ago, was very moving for me.'

But for one of the explorers at Chauvet, the emotional impact became a little too much and he decided to take a break: 'Every night I was dreaming of lions.'

You Decide

  1. 'Art, it would seem, is born like a foal that can walk straight away.' What did the writer John Berger mean by this?
  2. This film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, is 3D. Do you think it will be better than the computer generated imagery (CGI) that we see in many films these days?

Activities

  1. Manet, said the art historian Ernst Gombrich, 'tried to forget that he knew that a horse had four feet and aimed at representing only what he really saw during a horse race.' Make a picture either of what you know a horse to be like or what you see. What's the difference? Which is true?
  2. Here'sa version of how the cave was discovered. Write your own account, as if you were a cave explorer coming across amazing new discoveries.

Some People Say...

“New art or film is always better than what went before.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How long have humans been making art?
Well, the first art we know about was from the Palaeolithic era, when humans made cave paintings but also portable things like figurines and beads.
What was it for?
Sometimes they decorated functional objects, like tools. But the purpose of the cave paintings is not known: the caves don't seem to have been homes, so they were unlikely to be just decoration. Some religious or ceremonial purpose perhaps.
Or was it just humans being human?
Exactly. The cave explorers or 'speleologists' who discover these paintings find them so moving because they represent the timeless urge to depict what we see and what is important to us.