I don’t know my eons from my eras and the very sound of the words reminds me of rocks, dinosaurs and natural history and I start to get very sleepy.
And while forty thousand years is a long time, it is just barely imaginable. I once earned that much in dollars so I have a vague sense of the number.
A news story appeared last week regarding the now famous ancient cave paintings in Spain and France. A new and improved method of radionuclide dating comes close to putting them at or in the Neanderthal period, at least 40,000 years ago, meaning that they could have been created by early ancestors of Cro-Magnon, our ancient relative.
The drawings, of hands, animals and geometric figures are beautiful and mysterious. Many will know that they are often found deep in the caves in areas that are both pitch black and inaccessible. How did they find their way and why were they doing it?
Jean Clottes, an acknowledged expert on cave art has defined art as, “the result of the projection of a strong mental image on the world, in order to interpret and transform reality, and recreate it in a material form.”
These paintings suggest that our closest, direct biologic ancestors, some 400 centuries ago, apparently felt compelled to interpret and record their life experience. It is a far cry from my understanding of the life or intellect of the hunter-gatherer.
Creating this art took time and resources. Not only did the pigments have to be manufactured, but torches and lamps were necessary to light the way and to paint. But, why create art in a place where it would never be seen? (Did they suspect that one day it would be?)
Art in modern society is divorced from the concept of the essential. It is mostly viewed as the province of the elite and the playground of the dilettante. But the caves of Chauvet and Lascaux suggest otherwise.
They prove that at the very dawn of our time, and for purposes unknown, we sought inaccessible and dangerous places to create art. In a time when human sustenance hinged on a never-ending search for food, their need to draw, paint and sculpt was an imperative one.
The blown-pigment and negative-image hands are especially haunting. They literally reach across the vast distance, beckoning, perhaps asking to be remembered by us, from a time long gone.
If Clottes is correct, that art helps us to explain life, perhaps part of the riddle is solved. Then as now, we experience our existence and are deeply compelled to attempt to explain it or put it into context, spiritual or otherwise. It’s a bit of a relief, a comfort really, to know that the quest to understand our existence is as old as we are.