In 1994, three cave explorers probing the Ardeche valley in southern France discovered a passageway blocked by a pile of stones. They cleared the path, entered the cave—and stumbled upon one of the most significant prehistoric art sites ever discovered. On the walls of Chauvet Cave, as it became known, were perfectly preserved paintings of horses, mammoths, cattle, lions, rhinos, even a chimera of a woman with a bison’s head, among other wonders. They are still the world’s oldest known paintings, dating back to the Ice Age, 30,000 to 32,000 years ago.
That glimpse into the first stirrings of “humanness” is the overworked metaphor that animates Werner Herzog’s first foray into 3-D. Taking a camera crew into the restricted recesses of Chauvet, the German director becomes docent to the damnedest gallery you’ve ever seen. “It is as though the modern human soul had awakened here,” Herzog intones. And the subject is indeed worthy of our awe. When Chauvet was discovered, after 20,000 years of being sealed off by limestone, archaeologists and historians had first assumed the paintings to have come much later in the evolution of human art, so sophisticated were their renderings of animals. But when the results of the carbon dating came back, they were stunned to discover that these soulful scrawls were the oldest cave paintings yet discovered. Read Elbert Ventura’s review of Cave of Forgotten Dreams.