I just watched my first full length 3-D film: Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a documentary about the Chauvet Cave, which is a cave in France containing the oldest cave paintings yet discovered. Far from sloppy blobs, the drawings offer quite detailed portraits of horses, birds, bears, etc.
Some of these drawings are estimated to be 32,000 years old, more than twice as old as any previously known drawings. Some are quite detailed. For instance, there is a striking portrait of a rhino that seems to be running, as evidenced by the flipbook-like style of the artwork.
When these drawings were produced (and they weren’t produced all at once; there is speculation that some were done 5,000 years apart), daily life was torturous enough to make waterboarding seem like an episode of Double Dare. Europe was covered in glaciers. Freezing to death was a constant threat. Bows and arrows weren’t around, so in order to eat, man had to grapple with formidable beasts at fairly close range. Yet despite these hardships, MAN still felt the need to express himself. Procuring meals that were only modestly rancid and minimizing his frostbite wasn’t enough. He had to contextualize his existence through art. He had to say something about being here.
Mostly, these expressions were just straightforward depictions of what he observed; realistic treatments of the animals he encountered. The artists apparently felt no need to identify themselves. We see no signatures on the artwork. We see no cigarette holders left behind by snooty cave art critics. It is kind of refreshing.
And we see no drawings of humans. Not exactly. There does appear to one humanoid-animal drawing with religious overtones, one that seems to chime with the ancient fertility cults. And most significant to me, there are lots of handprints, all evidently done by one guy. We know it was one guy, because this gentleman had a crooked little finger that seems to recur in all of the handprints. He of the Crooked Pinky made several impressions of his hand on different walls.
So at a time when simply remaining alive from dawn until dusk was a grand achievement, when obtaining even the most basic components of sustenance was a risky and complicated endeavor, The Crooked Pinkied Artiste still thought it was worth his time to record his handprint again and again and again. As Cave of Forgotten Dreams makes clear, the Chauvet Cave offers us MAN’S oldest known attempts to capture his surroundings, as well as some of his early gropes at religion. And in the handprints of this single crooked-fingered doodler, I see the world’s oldest recorded neurotic.
My handprints can be found all over Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/greatMikePayne