Thursday, June 09, 2011


A couple weekends ago we went to a matinee of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the new 3D movie of the Chauvet cave paintings. The paintings are more than 30,000 years old. And they are dramatic, fully realized, not at all primitive. Clearly the artists who created them had practice and were working in a tradition.

Although I found Werner Herzog, the filmmaker, an irritating presence (and Kent found the 3D nausea-making), I became intrigued by the paintings. When Gregory Curtis’ recent book on Ice Age era European cave paintings passed under my nose at the library I decided to give it a try.

After listing a number of similarities among paintings found in caves from France to Spain Curtis says:

The immutable similarity in themes, colors, and techniques shows that the cave paintings were the creation of artists working in a cultural tradition that survived for more than 20,000 years. … [A]s painting is both an art and a skill that must be learned, and as there was a single acceptable style to which the painters had to conform, the skills of painting must have been taught.

The paintings are the physical remains of a sophisticated culture? A civilization that lasted 20,000 years? Can one talk about civilization without cities? The paintings reveal a continuity that can’t be coincidence. These were people who knew how to transmit consistent and well-defined ideas across millennia. Today we have a hard time comprehending the mindsets of people a hundred years removed from us. A culture a thousand years old seems weird and foreign, even if we can trace our ancestry to the people. The painters decorating a cave in 10,000 B.C.E. were comfortably working in a style their brethren of 10,000 years prior would have known and approved.

sourceThe Cave Painters: probing the mysteries of the world’s first artists by Gregory Curtis


Sarah Byam said...

I find it interesting what lasts. David was telling me last night about an article in Archeology Magazine. The example they cited that, should a papyrus and a computer disc be buried together for a 1,000 years, one could conceivably decipher the papyrus. The information on the cd would in all likelihood be a complete loss.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

They haven't found any practice canvases for the cave paintings either.