Chauvet horses, the Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc
In the beginning was the Word…
Theologians have long debated the intent behind those words from the Gospel of John, but I know what I take it to mean. I think it means that this is the moment we truly became human. When the early proto-human first began to play with language it marked the beginning of our dominance over the earth. In a way there is a resonance with Genesis here, in God’s formality in announcing Adam’s taxonomic duties, the naming of things. Everybody’s heard about the bird; bird, bird, bird, the bird is the word. This opened the door to everything: complex strategy, design, communal intent, the sharing of data. To be able to describe a thing one had seen using only words enabled an entire tribe to prepare to do battle with a beast it had never imagined. This is a very powerful tool, this language thing.
But words have limits, too, and those limits gave rise to the need for visual aids. There is an enormous window for when complex language might have arisen among humans, a fudge factor of a million years or so. For art, we think there are fewer years involved. While language might have sprung up as early as two million years ago, we think art is much newer, dating only to the Upper Paleolithic some thirty to thirty-five thousand years ago. But we can’t really be sure. So much has been discovered in the last few decades that it makes one wonder how much remains to be found. Science is imagined to be an art of such precision, but in reality it is fuzzy and broad and still struggling to understand simple things. Even in modern times linguists believe there are approximately 3,000 to 6,000 languages. Really? In an age when you’d have thought one could pretty well resolve this just by walking around and running a tally on your iPhone, it turns out you can be off by as much as 100%. Much, much older art might have been created and been lost to the simple predations of time. We may never be sure.
All of this revolves around the inherent need of people to tell their stories. People cannot bear the indifference of the universe to their machinations and so they conspire to find ways to make their exploits live beyond them. Even in the Stone Age times in which these images were created humans were already struggling with record-keeping. The first primitive scops arose, probably as a combination Shaman and story-teller. Over time humans would learn the value of rhythm to enhance memory and verse would be born. But before all that, it would occur to people to try and etch something in the body of the earth, to let the permanence of Gaia herself protect their history.
Look how beautiful these images are. And they were created in a cave some seventeen or eighteen thousand years ago, far from prying eyes, the work created in torch-lit darkness. Astonishing. This was not some random primitive, but an artist on the order of da Vinci or Picasso. This was someone who set out to send a signal seventeen millennia into the future and succeeded. Can you do that?
The French government helped pay for this virtual tour of Lascaux. It is jaw-droppingly awesome. Prepare to spend a lot of time.
I used to hate the French. I believed all those stories people tell about how rude they are, and on a trip through Paris I ran into someone rude and so my mind was set. My wife always loved the French and told me (kindly of course) that I was an idiot. Several years later I happened to be staying in the town of Melun, a charming village several miles southeast of Paris. A few friends and I were having a drink in the afternoon at a small bar by the river when a cheery, old man with a toper’s nose came over and began bragging to us in French about what a wonderful singer he was and how much he loved Americans. And then he began to sing to us. Everyone in the bar, young and old stopped what they were doing to turn and watch and share with us, their faces kindly and amused, their eyes warm with an obvious fondness for this old character. He was a baritone, a retired opera singer, and it was one of the most truly glorious experiences of my life. Everything was perfect; that place, those people, even me. I like to think that just as the old man was so generous with his joy, so, too, the French people have been generous with their sponsorship of this website. It is a truly staggering tour of a place too difficult and too fragile to open to the general public. Go visit when you have plenty of time to spare, and make sure you have the latest version of Flash loaded. The Flash tour is the one that will take your breath away. The tour is in French, and if that is a big problem I suggest you set up a separate tab in Google Translate for those few times you can’t figure it out on your own.
And to my French Uncle, the singer who made my day so bright: see, I’m passing on the story of your kindness. May it last for 15,000 years.