Recently I saw Werner Herzog’s newest documentary, “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” befitting his use of grand and mystical titles (“Encounters at the End of the World”).  It’s about a cave in Southern France where paleolithic art on the order of 30k years was discovered recently, very well-preserved.  The video that was allowed to be taken, although with minimal crew and lighting, is indeed striking.  To beat a Herzogian drum, there is something astonishing and primal about the raw and beautiful images of deer, mammoths, buffalo which have been etched and scratched onto the surfaces of this long-since hidden-cave.  It reminds one that art, and a need for expression and documentation of one’s surroundings, seem to be ancient, deeply instinctual tendencies.

Just as ghostly are the occasional pans of the cave’s floor, revealing multiple fragments of all sorts of animal (yet, no human bones) that may have lived in the cave, perhaps on an intermittent basis, some preserved through the crystallization of dripping stalactites over thousands of years, calling to mind the wicker-like amber of prehistoric insects.  One can imagine humans darting in and out, using the cave for warmth, protection, living in a land of 2-mile ice caps and sharp-toothed, gigantic furry creatures in abundance.

Now we don’t let our kids play in the street because “it’s too dangerous.”

There were two things in particular that stood out to me.  The first is the scope of the paintings.  There is a part in the film when an archaeologist points out some horse paintings done about 30 thousand years ago on one wall of the cave.  Based on modern techniques, she says they have been able to deduce that another set of, (to my eyes), similar paintings done virtually in the same spot, were done about 5,000 years later.  Take a minute to think about that.  This is akin to someone spraying some graffiti on the side of a wall, and then someone else coming along 5,000 years later and drawing directly adjacently with similar materials.  That is essentially the length of recorded civilization.  These people occupied space-time in a different way than we do now, in our highly unusual, exponentially-shifting incarnation of modernity.

The other shot that I found captivating was that of a cave-bear skull perched atop a pedestal, surrounded by what appeared to be fragments of burnt out charcoal, (used for incense?).  Once can easily imagine shamanistic rituals taking place in this context.  Clearly, the idea of spirituality, animism/shamanism embedded within the natural environment are very natural and ancient, and somehow reassuring to me, especially if you consider these practices to be along the same lines as art/creative/mystical part of the brain.  Not that these didn’t serve a very pragmatic purpose; the Chinese are extremely superstitious, yet very interested in money and profit.

There were also some carvings of female bodies from the legs down, with a buffalo head rearing itself from above, like the great minotaur-legends of my Greek-myth reading youth.

The other day day Cheryl and I were briefly in the Cantor Museum at Stanford to check out a temporary exhibit on the work of some printing presses.  In the lobby of the museum, there is a modern sculpture of a twisted wooden horse (that is actually bronze), greeting visitors to this collection of fragments of civilizations.  On my way out, I noticed two unusual young woman lingering near the horse.   They were both tall with sort of unusual Eurasian faces, and had matching, mirrored tattoos of a vaguely-Maori-esque pattern on the left/right sides of their exposed backs.  My mind flitted back and forth between these interwoven images of past and present, thousands and thousands and thousands of years of dust, blood, sex, life, and death.  And amidst it all, creativity and self-expression.  Maybe we don’t have anything over an amoeba as far as DNA reproduction is concerned, but, we do have something, don’t we?

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