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Roy Crawford Smith

The first time I saw Werner Herzog's documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," my jaw dropped to the floor.  I had visited Lascaux in France and was astounded by the fact that the cave paintings there dated back to Cro Magnon man, some 17,000 years ago.  I could understand then why Picasso, when he emerged from the Lascaux cave in 1940 said, "we have discovered nothing."  The experience changed his art forever.

What are the images from the Chauvet Cave telling us about those who painted them 36,000 years ago?

One of the most fascinating things mentioned in Herzog's documentary was the experiences of those who spent hours alone in cave, viewing the images by flickering torchlight, as prehistoric man would have.   The effect of flickering torch light produced the cinematic illusion of movement in the images.  One scientist working alone in the cave said that he dreamed of lions every night.  Every day brought him the same emotional shock.  After five days he decided not to go back to the cave because he needed time absorb his experience of "powerful things".  Mythologist Joseph Campbell might have called those "powerful things" archetypes of a collective unconscious, a place where powerful race memories are stored.  

Where could a prehistoric troglodyte living 32,000 years ago have possibly learned how to render forms of such power, drama and beauty that few artists of our own time can ever attain? 

The documentary relates another interesting anecdote about an ethnologist studying aboriginal rock art in northern Australia.  The Aboriginal rock art tradition could be said to date many thousands of years.  In 1970, he found what may have been the last aboriginal artist of this tradition and took him to a very ancient site of Aboriginal rock art.  The Aboriginal became very sad at seeing how the art had become worn and faded and began to paint over it.  The Ethnologist became curious and asked him why he was painting.  The Aboriginal said, "I am not painting.  It's only the hand of the spirit that is painting. The man is a part of the spirit."

If consciousness is limited to our brain, how did we create such powerful art so early in our evolution?  The recent discovery of Homo Naledi in South Africa poses a similar question to science.  This human precursor appears to have consciously buried its own dead,  2 to 3 millions years before evolutionary theorists believed possible.  It's brain was the size of an orange.

As an artist, the Chauvet cave art speaks of a remarkable technical skill and style in portraying powerful subjects.  These powerful subjects were engraved in the artist's memory at the time of execution.

If you randomly ask the average man, woman or child on the street  to draw you a lion, horse, Rhinocerus, or bull, the chances of their drawing anything more advanced than childish looking stick-figures might be a thousand to one.  You might get lucky and run into an artist or art student who could draw an "adequate" representation of these animals, but it would not likely possess the sheer artistic power, style and expression of the Chauvet cave drawings.

If Picasso doesn't know art when he sees it, then nobody does.  Chauvet is an estimated 15,000 years earlier than Lascaux!  Accomplished film director Werner Herzog realized this amazing fact about the art at Chauvet:   "Art ... as it bursts on the scene 32,000 years ago, is fully accomplished. It doesn't start with 'primitive scribblings' and first attempts like children would make drawings," Herzog says. "It's absolutely and fully accomplished."