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Ancient Ancestors

It was one of the most boring television documentaries I have ever seen, so boring I didn’t finish watching it. Far too many shots of scientific experts standing around in awe and talking about themselves. I really didn’t need to know that one of the scientists used to work in the circus. It didn’t add much to his credibility as a reliable expert.

But if the documentary was boring, the subject matter was still fascinating. The documentary, on the Knowledge channel a few weeks ago, featured the Chauvet cave in France.

This cave contains realistic prehistoric drawings of animals: cave bears, deer, horses, lions, ibex, reindeer, rhinoceroses, mammoths, muskoxen, panthers, and bison. Apparently all of these animals were present in the area when the drawings were made. The drawings display considerable knowledge of these animals’ activities. The rhinos are fighting, the horses whinnying. In some paintings, the animals have multiple legs to show the animals moving.

Also inside the cave are skeletons of cave bears, ibex, and even a hyena and an eagle (though the experts think the eagle may have been washed into the cave by an underground river). There are bear and human footprints in the soil on the bottom of the cave. 

The experts believe the cave was inhabited by cave bears, who may have dragged in the animals which left the other skeletons. There are bear claw scratchings over some of the drawings. Apparently, the bears were art critics. The experts don’t think humans ever actually lived in the cave.

The experts have dated the earliest drawings in the cave to about 32,000 years ago (the exact dating is a matter of debate, and I don’t put a lot of trust in such conjectures) and some others to a few thousand years later, partly by the mineral deposits built up over some of the drawings. The cave was sealed when the rock face collapsed thousands of years ago, and it was only recently discovered (in 1994).

The drawings show considerable skill. The artists appear to have scraped the walls clear of debris in order to have a smoother, lighter surface on which to draw. According to the documentary, experts have found carvings and even musical instruments from the same era elsewhere (including flutes producing the same tones as modern instruments). This shows remarkable sophistication for a time when humans were supposedly very primitive and Neanderthals were supposedly still around. The experts say this period was in the Ice Age, when 9,000 metres of glacier covered the Alps and the ocean was 300 feet lower, so people could walk from France to England.

The Chauvet cave is remarkable for what it reveals about humans (their unexpected sophistication so long ago) and what it reveals about animals (the presence of animals now only found in Africa and North America, along with extinct species such as the cave bear, the mammoth, and an obviously male lion without a mane).

What particularly caught my interest was another painting. Apparently, there was at least one avant garde artist in that era, the kind that delight art experts and make ordinary people scratch their heads. Near the entrance to the cave is a wall filled with red handprints. Similar, random handprints also appear deeper in the cave (perhaps as signatures on the paintings?).

The experts know that the multiple handprints on the one wall and at least one other place in the cave were all made by the same person because the hand has a distinctive feature. The little finger is bent inward.

This caught my interest since this is a genetic anomaly that runs in my family. I, my grandmother, my father, my brother, and my sister all have similarly shaped little fingers. My daughter’s little finger was similarly curved at birth—I noticed it the first time she wrapped her fingers around one of mine—although it later largely straightened out.

Does this mean that the cave drawings were done by one of my ancestors, demonstrating that I come from a long line of sophisticated, creative, and artistic geniuses? Alas, it does not appear to be so. This artist, the experts have calculated from the placement of the handprints on the walls, was six feet tall. Or maybe this ingenious artist used a common Coggins tool and stood on a rock to reach higher.




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