On the Meaning of the Chauvet Cave

The image atop my blog is taken from the Chauvet cave, France. The entrance to this remarkable cave collapsed over 20,000 years ago, preserving the very oldest paleolithic paintings made 32,000 years ago by Cro Magnon man, the early European Homo Sapiens.

In our time, the philosophy of man has diverged between East and West. East being concerned with life, here and now, and the meaning of life. Confucius famously said to one of his pupils, who dared asked the master about the afterlife, “You don’t even know anything about life, why should you care about what comes after?” The west and its focus on innovation and modern technology cares more for the question of how stuff is made, the practical side of things, while thinking pragmatically about the future and its afterlife.

Eastern versus Western Thinking

The line, East versus West, is a very blurred one though and Silk Road trade has kept both views alive in both hemispheres. But in Europe, the divergence away from ‘Eastern’ thinking, at least known from written history, occurred around the time of Greek philosopher Heraclitus. After Heraclitus the West took a turn and abandoned several of the Eastern philosophical beliefs.

A paleolithic rhinoceros, the woolly rhino.

When filmmaker Werner Herzog was given permission to film inside the Chauvet cave, like a modern Heraclitus, he rightfully focuses on the question What does it all mean? The beautiful drawings depict lions, a rare leopard, cave bears, some of whom left their scratchmarks on the walls, ibecks, horses, wolves, bison, bulls, birds or butterflies, a rare insect creature and European lions. And one image of a female human’s lower half merged with the front of a bull. Some paintings are in red paint, others in black, most drawn on cleared white surfaces.

Some of the artists left their markings, leaving imprints of their hands with red paint.

Paintings

The realism of the paintings is astonishing. These early men and women descended into the cave, bringing torches as their only source of light. They drew the paintings in the dark with the flickering of their fires. Some horses and bulls have eight legs, an early cinematic approach to movement. Other animals have their front paws and legs clearly moving. Movement, life, is a central theme or motivation.

The famous horses panel. Scientists concluded all the animals were painted by the same artist.

We can ponder the meaning of each individual drawing, each animal, each wall or setting. But what the whole of things mean?

To enter a cave is to leave the world behind. Research showed that no people actually lived in the cave, it was a spiritual place only and occasional home to live cave bears. Why do it? I have to make assumptions to find some possible answers.

Origin of Art

One the one hand we can make the assumption that art is the product of a wealthy, well nourished populous with spare time to spend on luxury activities such as drawing, rather than fighting off wolves and lions. From this perspective, the drawings on the wall could be an early cinema, as suggested by Herzog, where people used their fires to cast their own shadows among the animals, Perhaps spiritual performances to impress young men and women, and children.

But there is another, more interesting assumption that can possibly be made. It is the assumption of the dying world of the ice age. If a particularly strong winter had killed many large game animals, mankind’s invention of fire could keep them warm and help them through the winter. But a steep reduction of wildlife population would be a very distressing event to early man.

Here is what I believe the Chauvet cave tells us:

A Tale of Survival

After a strong, deadly winter, the local population of people are distressed by the declining wildlife population. Their mastery of fire manages them to survive. But with their intelligence they must have understood that animals could not make fire and therefore suffered more from the deadly winter cold. How to reignite the world, bring back life?

To enter the Chauvet cave is to leave the real world behind you. An analogy can be made to a woman’s womb. The cave, heated by fire, is a safe place with a spiritual meaning: the source of life. Perhaps, for this reason, the only image of a human is a female placed near the furthest end of the cave, like a signpost.

Seen as a whole, these early artists dove into the cave, heated it with their fires, and painted parties of animals onto the walls — an outward expression, from within to the outside. The cave is a gateway to the world outside. Perhaps the early artists believed that by painting vivid life onto the inside walls of the caves, they could reignite life with their fires, returning life outside..

Were they trying to save a dying world?

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On the Meaning of the Chauvet Cave by Mathijs Koenraadt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.