By Jon Berry
FOR THE PAST FEW DAYS, SINCE SEEING THE REMARKABLE new film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the prehistoric paintings of the Chauvet Cave in France, an image has been haunting me. It’s not the hundreds of beasts – bison, lions, rhinos, horses, et. al. – rendered with the stunning sophistication that prompted Picasso to marvel of a similar set of paintings at Lascaux, “they’ve invented everything.”
Nor is it the cave's painting of a Minotaur-like creature, with a head of a bison on a human body - though that image has recalibrated the myth’s frame of reference for me. Apparently what I always thought of as an ancient Greek image was ancient to the Greeks, too.
Nor is it the age of Chauvet's paintings, carbon-dated to 32,000 years ago, roughly double the age of the previously oldest known cave paintings - almost 1,800 generations old (assuming 18 years per generation), or about 600 grandparent-parent-child family portraits laid end to end.
What stopped me was the image of a hand, outlined in ochre-red paint on the wall at Chauvet. When I saw it, I thought: I know that hand. There are two such hands on my bureau, small, delicate clay sculptures my children created decades ago for elementary-school art projects. In each hand, I keep a small object – in one, a card that says “release,” in the other, a stone with the inscription “serenity” – my wishes as my son and daughter move into the world. Periodically, as circumstances shift, I move the objects from one hand to the other, offering a prayer that a power greater than myself will see through my adult-experience-borne skepticism and respond.
Scientists debate what the Chauvet Cave hands mean; the cave was only discovered 17 years ago. But, from the reading I’ve done since seeing Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a point of view is emerging. And it’s not so different from my bureau-top ritual.
The handprints – there are literally hundreds, bearing the imprint of men, women, children, even babies – appear to have been a ritual of entry. In pressing their hands to the cave wall, the visitors likely believed themselves to be “palping” the rock “in the hopes of reaching or summoning a force behind it.”
Caves were sacred spaces, sanctuary from the outside world and gateways to deeper, spiritual connection. One source compares the caves to twelfth-century churches. Like the great cathedrals, the caves satisfied familial, communal, and individual needs; people knew and were drawn to them. “For a nomadic people, living at nature’s mercy, it must have been a powerful consolation to know that such a refuge from flux existed,” writes Judith Thurman, in a 2008 New Yorker article that inspired filmmaker Werner Herzog to make Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Cave painters were, in effect, “sanctifying a finite space in an infinite universe.”
Jean Clottes, the French archaeologist who for many years led the exploration of the Chauvet Cave, thinks the cave paintings should force a rethinking of early humans. Rather than Homo sapiens, the wise, rational man, he contends, we are, in fact, “Homo spiritualis.” “The ability to make tools defines us less than the need to create belief systems,” Clottes says.
All of which, it seems, has implications for us today. In engaging in spiritual practice – praying, meditating, chanting, preaching, singing, making offerings, taking communion, listening to spiritual teachers – we are, in effect, following in footsteps going back 32,000-plus years. Like the hands on the walls, we are reaching toward the unknown for structures to contain an endless universe; narratives to connect us with our fellow beings, creatures, and environment; lessons to make sense of the past, the future, and our place in the present moment.
For someone like me, who appreciates history – that, since 1723, Quakers have been gathering for silent worship on the grounds where I go to meeting each Sunday; that Quakers have been around since the mid-1600s; and that Quakerism is an offshoot of a religion (Christianity) that has evolved over 2,000 years – the notion of spiritual practices reaching back 32,000-plus years is, well, a bit mind-blowing.
It makes me wonder:
Is what’s important not the labels we go by – Quaker, Buddhist, Unitarian (to name some that an online “find your religion” poll recently affixed to me) – but that we are following a deeply embedded, 32,000-plus-year-long path?
To the extent that we attach ourselves to a contemporary religious label, are we cutting ourselves off from a longer human lineage, and, in the process, denying ourselves a potential source of consolation and strength? Are we isolating ourselves from nature at a time when – given the vast destruction humans have wreaked on the environment – we should be deepening that connection?
Does the depth of human spiritual practice – that people have been seeking the sacred for 32,000-plus years – mean that there’s something within spirituality that humans inherently need; that, despite the protestations of the atheist movement, that there’s something in this tradition that can’t be undone?
Instead of focusing on this or that belief, should we instead concentrate on how we live our lives – reforming religion to lift up those in need, seek justice, create peace, offer comfort, prevent war, “walk cheerfully over the world answering that of God in everyone” (in the words of George Fox, Quakerism's founder), and, as the Dalai Lama says, profess that “my religion is kindness”?
For more on Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, click here. To view the film's trailer, click on the video below.
For more on the Chauvet Cave, including taking a tour, click on the French government’s site here. For Judith Thurman’s wonderful New Yorker story, “First Impressions: What Does the World’s Oldest Art Say About Us?” published June 23, 2008, click here. Most of the quotes above on Chauvet are from her article.
For more on the Chauvet Cave, including taking a tour, click on the French government’s site here.
For Judith Thurman’s wonderful New Yorker story, “First Impressions: What Does the World’s Oldest Art Say About Us?” published June 23, 2008, click here. Most of the quotes above on Chauvet are from her article.
Yes, I considered invoking the pun "the handwriting on the wall." But I thought it'd be better if you thought of it first.