The entire cave system is more than 1300 ft. long, and as mentioned earlier the original cave opening was a walk-in. Interestingly, deep in one of the first chambers at the former entrance — where the sunlight would never illuminate — there is a vertical wall covered with red dots, created by placing the painted palm of the hand against the wall. These were all created by the same person, and I find myself wondering what significance the painter attributed to this signed, dark entryway.
Irritating anachronistic assumptions
The movie’s modern gender assumptions rapidly become incredibly, numbingly tiresome, to the extent that I asked a friend of mine to see the movie with me the second time I went. I wanted to find out if someone else — someone, in fact, who thinks I’m too “sensitive” about such issues — would notice it as well. Amusingly, despite my not having mentioned it to him, he told me afterward that the constant, inaccurate assumptions regarding gender were overstated and a detriment to the movie’s possible quality. I was both surprised and pleased to hear that!
Herzog, for example, is filmed pointing excitedly at a sparkling lump of calcite which is a creamy shell over a bear’s skull, saying, “Here is a cave bear skull, probably male…” How can he know that?! Short of prescience, there is no way for him to tell. The gender assumptions are so irritatingly pervasive as to become almost numbing, in fact, with examples such as speakers referring constantly to “men” rather than “humans.” Unfortunately the anachronistic inaccuracies don’t end there, either. At one point Herzog refers to a lovely painting of four horse heads as the “battle of the horses.” The body language depicted, however, is so patently not aggressive — the equine faces are mostly just calmly alert — that it’s almost painful to watch Herzog’s ignorance. Only one of the horses even has its mouth open (it looks more like a whicker than a bite), and only one of them has its ears pinned back, which is a classic equine sign of anger.
If I remember correctly, it’s Herzog who also mentions the paintings were created in complete darkness, which I find hard to believe. Not only are the lovely flowing artistic lines very surely placed for that, but we are later show carbon scatterings or crumbs under dark carbon scratches. One of the archaeologists explains this occurs when you scrape a torch to get rid of the excess carbon so the torch will burn brightly longer.
There are calcite accretions all over everything, shimmering a beautiful, sparkling cream or ivory where they’ve stacked up in streaming swirls and rivulets. They take years — centuries — to accumulate, and thus were the first clue the paintings on the walls were real. Initially scientists had wondered if these could be incredible fakes, due to the skill of the painters. That made me laugh: why would we assume our ancestors were any less capable of creating beauty than we are — and perhaps even moreso, considering our current estrangement from the natural world?
I particularly liked the unusual, gracefully prancing mare with an arched neck and what looked like a white river or snake flowing through her from throat-latch to rump. The line appears to have been drawn with two fingers, and reminds me of Native American icons of animals with a lightning bolt in them. Curiously, the mare has a lower belly line which suggests pregnancy to me. Across that are some short, near vertical lines, and some of them have another swirling horizontal line which makes me think of the crest of a horse’s long nose, arched neck, curving back, and lifted tail. What do they signify? Are they perhaps iconic for the long, spindly legs of a moving foal next to its dam?
Some of the paintings have cave bear scratches both through them, and before them on the walls. Clearly cave bears frequented the cave often, then stood on their hind legs and clawed the stone walls, although I don’t know why they did so. Perhaps it’s like bears today, which use that stand-and-claw routine to mark territory?
One of the painted areas was described as a small burst of animals flowing away from a particular, low join in the rock, where water flowed in during the rainy season each year. Some of the animals depicted are battling rhinos, which is unusual — it is rare to see open conflict shown within the cave. My thought was to wonder if this battle was a symbol of, say, fecundity — since from my readings it is usually only during breeding season that rhinos will actually fight each other. There are also reindeer painted with eight legs, which to me suggests running and speed. Could this be the original inspiration for some of our mythological depictions, such as the Ancient Norse dimension-leaping horse Sleipnir; or the yet more ancient five-legged statues of the Assyrian lamassu — the protective human-headed, winged lions or bulls?
Further, I had to laugh again when the camera’s view rested on the dark, moist, multiply-edged slit in the rock face… while the narrator bemusedly wondered why there were quite so many animals painted here — more than any other place in the caves — and depicted as if they were all leaving this very spot. Considering how much like a human vulva the slit appeared, though, I’d say there’s not really much question at all of what was being signified there. The really ancient goddesses are often known as the Mistress of Animals, after all. Writing now, I find myself wondering if the camera crew realized this as well, but did not feel it would be socially acceptable for them to directly mention this on film. If so, what a shame.
One of the scientists interviewed was Julien Monney, a delicate looking Frenchman who turned out to be a former circus juggler/unicyclist as well. When he was asked by Herzog what had happened there in the caves, he replied well, I thought: we can’t ever know for sure, because the beautiful art is a representation of what used to be. I was fascinated by his words; he seemed thoughtful and passionate about the art. He mentioned being one of a team of scientists which went down into the cave for five days, and what a relief it was for them all to exit each night. According to him, the caves are a powerful emotional shock to the system; you need to emerge in order to relax and absorb such a mind-boggling experience. He mentioned dreaming of both painted and real lions each night during that time, but without fear. He wondered if this was a form of indirect understanding.
I found that a rather revelatory statement, and perhaps the only one in the entire movie that might be closest to the intended meaning of the creative prehistoric artists. We get so excited about simple data: the age of the paintings, the size of the cave, the number of species depicted, the various substances used in the paint… but what about the emotions, the reverence, the sheer determination it took to go paint in these huge, dark, scary caves — which were often simultaneously home to dangerous predators? What meaning was so important to our ancestors that they continued returning to this cave to repeatedly paint… for over five thousand years?