When I say Herzog is excessively artsy in the film, I wish I were just joking. At one point in the film he’s standing there and talking about a silence in the cave which is so profound they can perhaps hear their hearts beat. He asks everyone to fall silent and simply listen. Initially it’s rather lovely: you start hearing the faint, erratic dripping of distant water; and then a very soft rhythm which could be a heartbeat. Then, just as I was wondering delightedly if we really were hearing the sound-man’s heartbeat… it increased in volume, and violincello music started playing. It was doubtless well played, but I found the music rather mournful, dreary, and used way too often and too heavily. Frankly, I think Herzog would have done better to dispense with the dragging music and the wordless vocal choruses — how often can they sing, “Aa-aah!” without it becoming numbing? — and just let us hear what was actually in the cave! That was what the movie was supposed to be about, right?!
Sorry… occasionally my exasperation gets the better of me. Anyway! At this point the movie jumped once more out of the cave, and off for more interviews with various scientists.
Apparently 99% of the many bones found in Chauvet are from the now-extinct cave bear. Also apparently, since we have no context against which we might compare them, we don’t actually know how large they really were. For example, while there are scratches quite high on the walls in places, does that mean the bear had very long legs or claws? Was it standing on something to make itself taller, or sitting on its rump, or what? We just don’t know.
Most of the beautiful art within Chauvet is in black and white. The artists would scrape the cave wall clear for white accents, then use charcoal from their torches for the flowing black linework. There are, of course, some paintings and palm prints in red ochre, and there are a few tiny and unusual little bits in yellow — horse heads, if I recall correctly.
Jean-Michel Genese was Director of Chauvet for several years before he retired (if I’m remembering correctly), and he described glacial Europe of that time as being cold and dry, but with lots of sun. He emphasized it was an extremely fecund time. Living in the area of the cave, our ancestors could see horses, wisent, aurochs, ibex, mammoth, reindeer, rhino, lions, leopards, wolves, and cave bears. Interestingly the humans didn’t live in the caves at all, we know, as there are no middens nor human bones at all found in Chauvet. I found myself wondering what devotion drew them continuously back to the cave — not to live, but just to visit and record their beautiful visuals.
Michel Phillipe, archaeologist, explained more about the bones discovered within Chauvet: 99% of them were indeed the bones of cave bears. Also found were two wolves, an ibex, several horses, one cave hyena, and one golden eagle. They suspect the eagle was relatively recently swept in by water, however, since the skeleton was spread over a distance of ten feet, and most of the bones were piled up at the base of a stalagmite. Some of the bones discovered within the caves are slightly chewed, but most are not.
Gilles Tosello, an artist and archaeologist, and Carole Fritz, also an archaeologist, were performing studies to attempt to gauge changes over time. For example, they mention the four horse heads (shown earlier in this post) were clearly by the same artist, and that there is a 5,000 year span of overlapping art within the cave. They also dated some of the bear scratches to occurring about 40,000 years ago — well before the first humans started painting there. Over those scratches were some markings they stated were created by a human who must have been using a stick, as the lines go as high as eight feet up. At about 30,000 years or so, the wall was scraped again for a really nice painted panel of aurochs and horses.
Tosello referred to that particular beautiful panel of art as being “encircling,” emblematic of movement, cycling over time. This was of particular interest to me, since it’s the art next to what I believe was the symbolic birthing vulva. There was no mention of the vulval rock formation, however — just excited discussion of the nearby artwork. Interestingly, the sketches done by the scientists of the human cave artists were clearly of bearded males, and the two scientists referred to all the prehistoric artists as being men. I found myself bemusedly wondering why they were making such an unscientific assumption; they had no way of knowing what gender the artists were.
This astonishing blindness to their own assumptions was not unique to these two scientists, unfortunately. The current Director of Chauvet is archaeologist Dominique Baffier, who was interviewed next with fellow archaeologist Valerie Ferrugio — and Baffier too always refers to our prehistoric ancestors as male. Pardon my snark, but surely a scientist would realize there must have been female prehistoric humans as well, for us to have come into existence?!
The sad thing, at least to me, is that Baffier’s non-gendered information is interesting — and Ferrugio even points out the gendering to Baffier, to no avail! Baffier was talking about the red dots at the front of the cave. She noted they were all from one individual who stood about 6′ tall. Further, we could recognize and follow that person’s prints deeper within the cave due to their crooked little finger — which I thought was incredibly cool! As Baffier was talking about this “male,” though, Feruggio smiled and murmured quietly, “Or female.” Baffier was clearly thrown off her verbal stride, impatiently agreeing and using the phrase “male or female” maybe twice more in her interview — and from that point forward she was almost aggressive about exclusively using the term “male”… and we never saw nor heard from Feruggio again in the film.
This was particularly a shame for two reasons: first, Baffier took the camera crew on a tour, to make sure they saw all the most interesting things in the cave — and the (unwitting?) impression she shared in her discussions was that everything alive was male back then! Secondly, it made her appear deliberately bigoted and non-objective, rather than simply making a subjective mistake through poor judgment — which is how the other male-fixated scientists appeared. On the other hand, it did mean I started viewing the movie through a sort of thoughtfully suspicious lens, trying to make my own decisions instead of just blandly accepting everything they said as incontrovertible truth.
Baffier’s tour was rather interesting despite her, in a way. She pointed out the longest trail of preserved cave bear tracks we know of, as well as the beautiful clumps of stalactites which swayed in frozen beauty like thick clumps of sparkling pale hair. She also pointed out a painting of what she said was the only spotted panther depicted in prehistoric art, but it looked far more like a humped and spotted cave hyena to me. The muzzle was more canid than feline, I thought. There was a smaller, less spotty creature in front and below it, though — perhaps that was the panther?
Baffier also pointed out concretions in a niche within the rocks, where water flowing over the millennia had washed away most of the red ochre used in the art at that point. I found it particularly fascinating, as there was a weirdly insect-like drawing there — multiple legs and a sort of long, wiggly torso — which is quite unusual. Even more curious, there were two double-winged, butterfly-like shapes represented in that area as well. The first one was on the wall near the multi-legged insect. If the viewer were standing by the wall to examine it closely, then hanging directly behind her would be a wide stalactite — and that was where the second butterfly-like shape was repeated. It was slightly different, however; it had a little pendant or something painted on its bottom edge, which made it look very much like a double-headed axe to me! The placement of this painting was such that a casual stroll through the cave would have missed the second butterfly figure, too, which makes me wonder why it was so hidden, and what special meaning it had.