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.