Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

About 25,000 years ago a cliff face in Southern France collapsed. It completely sealed off a large cave on a riverbed. When I say completely sealed off I mean it. In 1994 some French archeologists were taking part in a ‘shot-in-the-dark’ method of looking for caves that they sometimes did in their spare time. The method is to walk along areas that look to have formed as a result of a collapse of the rock face and use either your hand or face to feel for air coming out of the rock. Air means at least a shaft is under there. Well, they found one and the shaft just kept going, though it was barely big enough for either of them to get through. They kept following it down and down until suddenly it opened into a huge expanse. What blew them away, however, was not the size, but what they saw inside. The cave is a perfectly preserved glimpse into life over 25,000 years ago (the date of which they know from carbon dating and many other tests). It is truly as though they stepped back in time.

There are footprints, there are pieces of ash from torches, there are altars and there are numerous, incredible paintings. Not only are these now the earliest known paintings, but they are truly the product of high levels of skill, much more advanced than other known works of art dating thousands of years later. There are also the bones of animals long extinct and some of the paintings are of animals that scientists had no idea existed in France, such as lions, hyenas, bison and more. The French government, in an attempt to preserve this amazing time capsule, sealed it off and forbade any entry except for a single, small group of scientists who is allowed for one hour a day, for four days, once a year.

Werner Herzog is the first person in these last 16 years allowed to film inside the cave. They allowed him in only with the scientists and only if he used battery operated equipment. Though this means the camera work can be iffy at times and the lighting is not always that great, the chance to take a look inside this incredible site is worth every minute. In the entire world, as far as we know, there is no other site like it. While other ancient finds exist, they are always tainted and faded. With this cave, it is truly like walking in two seconds after Cro-Magnon man walked out. The only thing that makes it at all dated are the stalactites and stalagmites that have developed over the millennia, but all these do is make the joint all the more amazing visually. If you could pick someone to guide you through this amazing cave, I can’t imagine many more qualified to make it interesting than Werner Herzog. It’s the most upbeat and positive I’ve ever seen him. Even Werner can’t help but be in awe of this place.


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