May 7th, 2011
The Lascaux caves used to define prehistoric—you just couldn’t get any older than that. Then in the early nineties the Chauvet caves were discovered, also in France, and turned out to have paintings that were about twice as old. Fortunately audiences of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams don’t have to switch off their cell phones, put on 3-D glasses and begin to grasp what a leap of sixteen thousand years might mean to enjoy the movie— there is so much else to wonder at. Besides so little changed during all that time. On the cathedral-like walls of Chauvet as at Lascaux we inhabit certain animals as though we become then, rarely glimpsing any mundane details of life like actual people or plants or even planets. These fevered escapist dramas, (some scholars believe drug-fueled) often star hybrid creatures. At Chauvet for example there’s a lion with a man’s feet, at Lascaux a man has the head of a bird.
In later civilizations these half and half creatures went on to populate nearly every myth and fairy tale. They became the Disney cartoon characters, the Hindu gods, the angels of the Catholic church, and the monsters lurking in the depths of the ocean that people stubbornly insisted they had seen. So it should come as no surprise that the earliest people, when they had a choice, chose hybrid creatures to stare at. After all, as the French like to say,
the more things change the more they stay the same.