In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the great filmmaker Werner Herzog explores Chauvet, which contains some of the most absorbing cave paintings yet discovered. They also appear to be some of the oldest, dated to 32,000 years before present. Herzog’s camera pans slowly across Chauvet’s bulbous tan walls while his crew moves handheld lights to make the many bumps and angles do a sort of shadow play. The lions, bison, horses, and rhinos outlined in black seem to flex and shift. They nuzzle, sniff, or maybe battle each other. At one point in a voiceover, Herzog says, “The strongest hint of something spiritual, some religious ceremony in the cave, is this bear skull. It has been placed dead center on the rock resembling an altar. The staging seems deliberate. The skull faces the entrance of the cave, and around it fragments of charcoal were found, potentially used as incense.” Amid the flickering beauty in this scene, that monologue got me wondering: How does he know this was a religious situation?
Well. He doesn’t. Nobody will ever know why that skull sits there. While archaeologists agree some prehistoric person did it, the reason why could be anything from a carefully-planned religious rite to a joke. That’s one of the greatest attractions — and the insidious trouble — with cave art. There is no context. Looking at it turns us loose in a wide-open playpen for the imagination where each of us fills the gaps with wishes for what should be there. More… “Cave Artists”