In late 1994 three French explorers entered a recently discovered cave in southeastern France and were astonished to find the most ancient known paintings on Earth, made about 32,000 years ago, which were in such a magnificent state or preservation and so beautifully done that some suggested they might be recent forgeries.
Last year German filmmaker Werner Hertzog persuaded French authorities to allow him and a tiny team to film inside the cave. The restrictions imposed on them, primarily to preserve the cave and its contents but also to protect the filmmakers from high levels of radon and carbon dioxide, were stringent: only a few days’ filmmaking and no more than four hours per day, no stepping off a narrow metal walkway (the cave’s soft floors are full of ancient bear tracks, bear skulls, and the like), limited equipment, battery-powered LED lights, etc.
Because the ancient artists incorporated the irregularly undulating shape of the walls into the paintings, Herzog elected to shoot in 3D (which he otherwise dislikes) and had to jury-rig an apparatus for that purpose with the aid of a local blacksmith. Unfortunately, the version I saw wasn’t in 3D, but it was still worth seeing.
In addition to the footage shot inside the cave there are interviews, scenes of the beautiful surrounding terrain, and examples of even older ancient art, namely carved miniature figures dated up to 8,000 years older than the paintings. (That is, the oldest known figurines antedate the oldest known paintings by a longer period of time than that from the invention of writing to the present.)
For the most part, the paintings are not at all primitive in appearance. Except for one outcropping from the ceiling, which appears to be painted like a stone-age figurine of a human female body, the paintings all depict large animals: lions, horses, antelopes, rhinoceroses, and the like. The lions are of an extinct European species; the males lack the mane of today’s African lions. In some cases the animals are painted with many legs, presumably to suggest running. The walls also carry the scratch-marks of cave bears, some disturbing the paintings underneath. A curiosity: For unknown reasons the paintings were placed only in areas of the cave beyond the reach of sunlight.
Since the number of paintings is limited and the film keeps returning to them, it gets to be a bit repetitive after a while. But that’s a very minor complaint, since these are paintings that merit more than one look. Incidentally, one researcher interviewed said he had to stay out of the cave for a while because he was too emotionally affected by the sight of the ancient art.