cave was completely closed off by a rockslide for thousands of years. When it was
finally discovered, people were amazed to find intact and startlingly fresh paintings
on the walls—paintings of horses, rhinoceri and even (now extinct) reptiles. Not
only were the drawings magnificent in their detail, they also resonated with great
artistic skill, movement and context and structure and, yes, imagination, especially a
half-female, half-bull representation and figurines reminiscent of fertility cults that
flourished much, much later.
Here’s the fantastic part: these drawings were carbon-dated to 32,000 years ago.
Long before any reliable record we have ever had of a cultural accretion that would
include not only art and non-practical figurines but also musical instruments, such as a
nearly-intact flute, complete with finger holes.
Now here’s the bad news: Scientists have determined that the tourists who
immediately flocked to the place had begun to damage the cave because their breath
formed mold on the walls. It would not be long before the precious paintings
themselves would be damaged. And so the cave was closed. And ever since, public
access has been extremely limited. Only certain scientists in protective gear were
allowed in. That is, until the film director Werner Herzog was invited to bring in a
3-D camera crew. So now the rest of us can witness this fantastic archeological and
Herzog has chosen to intersperse his documentary with commentary by various
professors and professionals. Some are more adept in English than others, and the
comments of others are rendered into heavily accented English by interpreters. Some
of these otherwise-obscure commentators are notably full of themselves. The viewer
is forced to marvel at this wondrous phenomenon only through the perspectives of this
particular gathering of “experts.”
Have you ever visited an art museum, rented the audio commentary and decided after
a while that you’d rather just take off the earphones and let the classic works speak
to you for themselves? Well, we don’t have that opportunity here. And Herzog also
gets somewhat in the way with his own ponderous comments, and with a sound track
of primitive-sounding music that is at times obtrusive and almost always unmelodic.
But these hurdles cannot detract from the sheer magnificence of this ancient artistry,
which seems so vivid and vibrant on those cave walls that are still shining with calcite
formations, sprinkled with astounding sets of stalactites and stalagmites, the dirt floor
still displaying tracks of animals long since extinct from the earth.
This is a unique moviegoing experience that admittedly isn’t for everyone. But if you
do choose to see it, you’ll be astounded by these paintings from 30,000 B.C.
Ronald P. Salfen is co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church, Greenville, Texas.