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The Cave Paintings at Chauvet, Or, What Makes Men Men

Clicking through the “on-demand” selections on our television screen after an especially long day recently, the missus and I happened upon “The Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Werner Herzog’s documentary about the ancient paintings deep in a cave in Chauvet, France. The film proved fascinating–at moments, simply electric. Discovered only eight years ago, these cave paintings date back at least 32,000 years, yet they appear fresh, immediate, vivid, human. The documentary uses a lot of New Age-y background music, as if the paintings had been produced by some sort of aliens. Yet whoever they may have been, exactly, and however they got there, the people who produced those paintings weren’t alien at all. They were–well, human.

The film sent me riffling through G. K. Chesteron’s 1925 classic, The Everlasting Man. Chesterton is writing here about an early discovery of cave paintings–probably the cave paintings in Altamira, Spain, which were discovered in 1880–but every word he writes applies to the finds in Chauvet as well:

The evolutionist stands staring in the painted cavern at the things that are too large to be seen and too simple to be understood. He tries to deduce all sorts of other indirect and doubtful things from the details of the pictures, because he cannot see the primary significance of the whole; thin and theoretical deductions about the absence of religion or the presence of superstition; about tribal government and hunting and human sacrifice and heaven knows what….

When all is said the main fact that the record of the reindeer men attests, along with all other records, is that the reindeer man could draw and the reindeer could not….

It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.

Chesterton is not, be it noted, offering an argument against evolution per se. What he is offering is an argument that evolution, understood as some sort of slow, steady development from slime to, let us say, Michelangelo, is, at the very least, incomplete. At some point, something happened. Men became wholly and utterly different from every other form of life on the planet–different, as Chesterton writes, “in kind and not in degree.” When you look at the paintings in Chauvet, what thrills and shocks is the stark inescapable sense of recognition. They were as human as we.

  1. Tom Lindholtz

    I love your post here, Peter, because it places a spotlight on something I’ve long believed. When scripture says, in Genesis 2:7, “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being,” I don’t think it is talking about breathing air into his lungs so he’d be physically alive. I think he was breathing into him the spiritual life that made him Man, that made him different from the monkey, that made him capable of art. Thanks for a great illustration of the idea.

  2. Lance K. Drumheller

    It is the simple truth that man does differ from the brutes in kind and not in degree; and the proof of it is here; that it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and that it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.

    These words are as beautiful as they are true.

     

  3. The Mugwump

    Artistic expression is evidence of God’s divine spark within man.  Where, when, and how this evolved will remain a mystery for centuries to come.  Yet there is clearly a point of demarcation between man and brute.  I can only attribute this to God’s grace.  Clearly He wants us to know Him better.  And share His appreciation for what is true, good, and beautiful that we might become more like Him.        

  4. Cornelius Julius Sebastian

    It is an exceptionally arresting documentary.  Wonderful linkage to Chesterton’s insight, sir. 

  5. Lance K. Drumheller

    When I see evidence of our ancestors’ intelligence, I think of Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis and his characterization of “chronological snobbery.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronological_snobbery

    Whoever the artist, the intelligence is evident.

    caveart-44-45.jpg

    Modern artists, however…

    rino2.jpg

  6. Fredösphere

    Thanks, Peter.

    What shocks me about these ancient cave paintings is their artistic excellence. They are rendered with confidence and the result is beautiful. The record of such a distant time is fragmentary in the extreme, so we dare not try to draw too many conclusions, but I find it interesting (to say the least) that the surviving examples of the very ancient are so very well done.

  7. Fredösphere

    (I see that Ameriherron is taking a similar tack.)

  8. Crabby Appleton

    I have Herzog’s perfect little gem of a film.  And the opening of The Everlasting Man is among my favorites in all of Chesterton.  I will also recommend a wonderful book by David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales.  Stove, no creationist and a believer in evolution, delights in pointing out the weaknesses of Darwinisms most prominent public advocates (Dawkins, et al ) in that the fundamental principles of Darwin are universally true except when applied to the human species.  Chesterton was completely correct.  The difference between man and other animals is a difference in kind and not in degree.  And that is the true wonder.

  9. Jerry Carroll

    I’ve seen all of Herzog’s documentaries. The man is a genius in that form. The most arresting, “Grizzly Man,” comes at the man/animal divide from another angle. Timothy Treadwell thought he knew all there was to know about bears. Then he was eaten and so was his girlfriend.

  10. Mark Wilson

    Often when discussing technology and artificial intelligence, people talk about the Singularity, a theoretical point in time at which AI becomes self-aware, or passes some other significant threshold, whereafter history diverges and everything will be forever different from before.

    There  must have been a similar event in humanity’s past.

  11. Lance K. Drumheller
    Fredösphere: What shocks me about these ancient cave paintings is their artistic excellence. They are rendered with confidence and the result is beautiful. The record of such a distant time is fragmentary in the extreme, so we dare not try to draw too many conclusions, but I find it interesting (to say the least) that the surviving examples of the very ancient are so very well done. · 18 minutes ago

    You’re right. Ancient peoples had phenomenal style.

    chauvetlionsbrno.jpg

  12. Crabby Appleton

    Many years ago J Bronowski did a brilliant brilliant brilliant documentary series , The Ascent of Man.  And in one of the early episodes he does a segment from one of the famous painting caves and he put forth the idea that perhaps  the people who used the cave, hunters of wild beasts, would go there, and in the dark as soon as the light would reveal the painted animal they would practice facing the beasts they would hunt.  What  a fascinating concept:  prehistoric simulators !!

  13. Mel Foil

    I think they understood, from the Earth’s elements comes the grass, and from the grass, comes the aurochs (ancient cow.) So, they went down inside the earth to spiritually prime the pump so to speak. That’s my theory.

  14. Stuart Creque

    The dividing line, so far as I can see, is the ability to tell stories about things that do not physically exist in the present.

    Bees tell stories about then-current nectar and pollen sources, with navigational instructions.

    Animals tell stories about readiness to mate, or how to hunt, or where and how to find food.  Animals can even make jokes or be deceptive: a raven can pretend to find food in an empty puzzle box in order to distract a bullying raven who steals food, and then go to a full puzzle box to get the treat inside while the bully looks fruitlessly for the stolen loot.

    Animals have instincts that drive them to follow a natural story about where to mate and spawn and where to migrate to escape harsh seasons.

    So far as I know, however, only humans can tell and record stories about things in the abstract in ways that can be shared through time, whether in oral traditions or in physical (written or visual) form.

  15. Mama Toad
    Brian Watt: In this episode of The Ascent of Man, Bronowski discusses the evolutionary changes in the primate line that leads to modern humans which may answer the questions posed about the divergence that resulted in humans intellectual capabilities and potential. Enjoy. · 6 hours ago

    My senior year in high school I took a college class in which we watched this whole series. I had forgotten Dr. Bronowski’s sartorial excellence (I love his shoes!), but I recalled the sound of his voice. He’s quite a performer, no? “…. the whole human frame, makes a mosaic of special gifts. Man is not the most majestic of creatures. Long before, the dinosaurs were far more splendid. But he has what no other animal possesses. A jigsaw of faculties which alone, over 3,000 million years of life, make him creative. Every animal leaves traces of what he was. Man alone leaves traces of what he created.” (starting around 8:30)

  16. Crabby Appleton
    Brian Watt: In this episode of The Ascent of Man, Bronowski discusses the evolutionary changes in the primate line that leads to modern humans which may answer the questions posed about the divergence that resulted in humans intellectual capabilities and potential. Enjoy. · 7 hours ago

    Thanks for that link! This is Doctor J at his most prosaic, though. He covers this same ground, and sooooo much more eloquently, when he devotes the final essay of the series, The Long Childhood, to it.  Do give it a watch if you haven’t seen it.  I don’t have any quibble at all with questions of process or mechanism.  It’s the end result that is so unarguably wonder full.  And it also gives me a chance to deploy here (not at you, personally) one of my favorite Chestertonisms also from the opening of The Everlasting Man:  ”For a man who does not believe in a miracle, a slow miracle would be just as incredible as a swift one.”

  17. Gödel
    Tom Lindholtz: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being,” I don’t think it is talking about breathing air into his lungs so he’d be physically alive.

    Yes and no.

    Yes, it’s tough to be a physically alive human being without breathing air into your lungs, Morpheus in the dojo notwithstanding. :-)

    No, it is not an accident that the Latin-derived word for taking in breath is inspire. According to Genesis, Adam was literally inspired by God. There’s a linking here, at least linguistically, between “breath” and the spirit, with the clear assertion that one cannot be human without one’s spirit. This also prefigures John 20:22, “And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”

    Stuart Creque is also right on: to be human is to have moral agency, to be created only a little lower than the angels. To have moral agency is to be able to choose actions based on the ability to perceive outcomes. No image of the future, no choice. No choice, no moral agency.

  18. Johnny Dubya

    Simply because I’m a big Steely Dan fan, I’ll post here the lyrics to their song “The Caves of Altamira”:

    I recall when I was small

    How I spent my days alone

    The busy world was not for me

    So I went and found my own

    I would climb the garden wall

    With a candle in my hand

    I’d hide inside a hall of rock and sand.

    On the stone an ancient hand

    In a faded yellow-green

    Made alive a worldly wonder

    Often told but never seen

    Now and ever bound to labor

    On the sea and in the sky

    Every man and beast appeared

    A friend as real as I.

    Before the fall when they wrote it on the wall

    When there wasn’t even any Hollywood

    They heard the call

    And they wrote it on the wall

    For you and me we understood.

    Can it be this sad design

    Could be the very same?

    A wooly man without a face

    And a beast without a name

    Nothing here but history

    Can you see what has been done?

    Memory rush over me

    Now I step into the sun.

  19. Eric Voegelin

    It’s available on Netflix as an ‘instant’ movie.

  20. Brian Watt
    Mel Foil

    Brian Watt

    Randall: …  Chesterton was completely correct.  The difference between man and other animals is a difference in kind and not in degree.  And that is the true wonder.

    If one keeps wondering then one eventually is confronted by the evidence that strongly suggests that the differences between man and other animals is a difference in kind based on incremental evolutionary changes (or changes by degrees) as a result of mutation and natural selection over tens of millions of years. Chesterton was only partly correct as Bronowski points out in the episode cited in my previous comment.

    There aren’t any animals that are willing to sacrifice their life for an idea. For offspring, yes, for the leader of the pack, yes, but not for an idea. A dog will sacrifice his life for you, but he just thinks you’re a very funny-looking alpha dog.

    A marvelous point, though this is, it does not in any way refute the process by which humans through millions of years of evolutionary process gained the intellectual capacity to be creative, to form larger communities, to develop art, ethics, philosophy or religions of various kinds.

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