Saturday, June 4, 2011

In a Canyon, In a Cavern

Tonight I saw Werner Herzog's documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, which contains the oldest known paintings, believed to be 33,000 years old. By good luck I was able to see it in 3D, which despite its flaws gives a much better sense of what these images look like -- it's like the difference between a globe and a Mercator projection that flattens the earth. Some of the paintings seem to take advantage of the contours of the rock to suggest the three-dimensionality of the animals they represent. Herzog's occasional pomposity can't really diminish the power of the cave art.

Herzog also interviewed the archaeologists who were studying the cave while he and his crew were there. (Access to the cave is strictly limited by the French government to preserve not just the art but the other archaeological details -- bear and human tracks, for example, and torch trails on the walls -- so it's great good luck that Herzog was allowed to film there. Chauvet isn't going to be a tourist site as Lascaux was at first.) Much has been made in reviews of the eccentricity of the researchers, like the guy who dresses "like an Inuit" or the master perfumer who looks for new caves by sniffing around, hoping to get a whiff of ancient air. This provides some relief from the solemnity of the underground scenes and makes the film more entertaining, but I was bothered by their universal description of the Paleolithic denizens of Chauvet as "man." This could partly be because the speakers' first language isn't English, but only partly. Even the women archaeologists talked as though there were no Cro-Magnon women. Most of them, as far as I could tell, bought into antiquated and disputed conceptions of Man the Hunter.

This became especially annoying when one of the women archaeologists showed Herzog a stylized image of a woman on a stalactite, overlapped by a painting of a bison. The stalactite, a few feet beyond the stainless-steel catwalk on which visitors must remain, was never full visible in the film, even later on when the filmmakers put a camera on a boom to try to see around it. But photos of the image, like the one above, are available online. (It appears that the painting is known as the Sorcerer, which makes me wonder how secure the identification of a woman in the image really is.) Seen from this angle, the "woman" is a triangle of pubic hair sitting atop tapering legs, reminiscent of the so-called "Venus" sculptures that have been found in great numbers at European sites. The oldest of these, found in 2008 at Schelklingen, Germany, is even older than the Chauvet cave paintings by several thousand years. But the woman's figure (if that's what it is) melds with the head of a big cat at the upper left.

The film then digresses to a discussion of the "Venus" sculptures, with some nervous prurience. At this point I began thinking of a book I read a few years ago, The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory, by J. M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, and Jake Page, published by Smithsonian Books in 2007. The authors comment (pages 188-9):
What escaped many observers, both male and female, for many years was that some of these figurines were partly clad. … But never mind – they were largely naked and had to represent fertility, menstruation, the godhead (as goddess), or (giggle) paleoporn.

Then in 1998, coming off their discovery of the many fiber artifacts from Moravian sites, which many of their colleagues considered an important rearrangement of the picture of Upper Paleolithic society in Europe, Adovasio and Soffer turned their attention to these figures. To begin with, a close inspection of the braids of the Venus of Willendorf showed that her “hair” was, on the contrary, a woven hat, a radially hand-woven item of apparel that was probably begun from a knotted center in the manner of certain coiled baskets made today by Hopi, Apache, and other American Indian tribes in which a flexible element is wrapped with stem stitches as the spiral grows. Seven circuits encircle the head, with two extra half-circuits over the nape of the neck. Indeed, so precise is the carving of all this stitchery that it is not unreasonable to think that, among the functions involved in this Upper Paleolithic masterpiece, it served as a blueprint or instruction manual showing weavers how to make such hats. Indeed, anyone who has done any sculpting in stone or wood can tell you that the fashioning of the body, while extremely closely realized, would have been easy compared to the astounding control and staying power needed to render this stitching (even a few splices) of this hat so true and precise. The carver had to have spent more time on just the hat than on the rest of the entire figurine.

Of all the scholars who have examined these figurines over the decades (and there must be hundreds), only one other, Elizabeth Barber, ever took notice of the fiber accouterments some of them wore. One British scholar who studied the Venuses in his youth never noticed any clothing because, he recalled, he “never got past the breasts.”
The same could be said of the archaeologists in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I couldn't help wondering what other, more mature archaeologists might have to say about the paintings at Chauvet, especially the Sorcerer.

Another archaeologist clumsily demonstrates a bone-tipped spear and an altatl or spear-thrower which, he says, could be used to hunt horses. He didn't mention mammoths -- or did he? Maybe bears; there are a lot of bear bones in the Chauvet cave, including a skull set atop an altar-like rock. This made me think of The Invisible Sex again (180):
Ethnographic studies of modern people have turned up practically no instances of deliberate elephant hunting before the advent of the ivory trade in modern times. There is no evidence of Upper Paleolithic assemblages of enough hunters (maybe 40 or so) to take down a mammoth, much less the number needed to wipe out a herd. It is dangerous enough, in fact, to go after any animal the size of a horse or a bison if one is armed with a spear. Only the foolhardiest would attempt to kill an animal that stands 14 feet high and has a notoriously bad temper when annoyed. A statement that has been assigned to multiple originators suggests that it is more likely that every so often a Paleolithic hunter brought down an already wounded mammoth (or one slowed down a bit in the mud of a swamp) and then talked about it for the rest of his life. The picture of Man the Mighty Hunter is now fading out of the annals of prehistory. By far, most of the animal remains found strewn about places like Dolni Vestonice consists of the bones of small mammals like hares and foxes.
But the film is still very much worth seeing, in 3D if you have the opportunity. Then look for The Invisible Sex, which is a fascinating read.