Review: Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

(via IMDB)

In Southern France, the Ardèche River flows through a spectacular landscape. Surrounding the river are white limestone cliffs, covered with vegetation, rising up over hundreds of feet. Over the river runs the Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, a natural arc like the one at Arches National Park. The cliffs on either side of the river are perfect places for hiking and that is what Jean-Marie Chauvet and his two friends, Éliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire were doing in December, 1994 when they chanced on a narrow entrance within the cliffs.
When you enter through this obscure shaft which was hidden for twenty millenia, you reach a dark cave with high ceiling where there is not much to see. If you have seen any Ramsay Brothers or Ram Gopal Varma movie, this is the point where you scream and run as fast as possible. Fortunately Chauvet and his friends explored the caves and as they went through the network of chambers they saw not just animal bones or stalactites, but undulating cave walls painted with spectacular animal images. And they were 30,000 years old.
Some of us may enter Mt. Athos, but we will never enter the Chauvet Cave. The cave is closed to public. But then if the French culture minister is a big fan of your movies you may get the once in a life time opportunity to film inside the cave. This is how the Bavarian film maker Werner Herzog (Aguirre) got permission to make this 3D documentary. But even then there were too many restrictions. The crew had to minimal (3 people). They had to use only hand held cold lights and always stay on the narrow walkway. They would be allowed inside only for a few hours every day. Despite such restrictions, the result is a spectacular film.
Since the cave was naturally sealed by a landslide for more than 20,000 years, it is like walking into a time capsule. The walls are filled with drawings of horses, bisons, lions, bears and mammoths. In one depiction, there are a bunch of animals running and to give the impression of running, the artist chose to depict the animal with multiple legs, similar to how you do in modern cartoons. You can call them the precursor to animation. Drawn during the period when Neanderthal man roamed alongside humans and Europe was covered with glaciers, the images are lifelike. They seem to be telling various stories: of fighting and mating and of hunting and movement.

The sequencing takes us in through that cliff-face door, away from sunlit faces and landscapes and down the torchlit shaft leading to the cave’s long chambers. These stretch back some eight hundred feet. The cave’s miracles of geology—the extravagance of its glittering stalagmites and calcite curtains—surpass those of the Pont d’Arc outside. But the chambers also have undulating walls, and it was on these that the ancient artists chiefly worked. We are given a foretaste of their images: we exit; we return to this item, to that; we leave again. “It is a relief to go outside,” Herzog explains: inside the caves we get to feeling “as if we were disturbing,” as if our distant ancestors’ eyes were still upon us. But finally we surrender to the flow of their art, immersed at length in the interplay of torchlight, rippling cave flanks, scorings, charcoalings and red ochre.[Cave of Forgotten Dreams]

But there are no human depictions.

One thing, though: There’s a partial depiction of a female, the lower part of a female body, somewhat embraced by a bison. It’s very strange that this motif reappears 30,000 years later in some etchings of Picasso—the Minotaur and the female.But why no human beings? You see depictions of human beings 20,000 years later, 18,000 years later, at the beginning of Neolithic times. By the end of Paleolithic—during the Magdalenian epoch of Paleolithic culture—that’s where you start seeing human depictions.[Werner Herzog Finds at Least Three Dimensions in the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams]

The documentary also reveals the amount of care taken by the French to protect the caves. This has not been developed into a tourist site because the visitors’ breath could bring mold on the paintings like what happened in Lascaux. Even the scientists stay on the narrow metal path so as not to plant their foot prints next to the 20,000 year print of an extinct cave bear. For tourists, they are planning a replica site nearby.

(via Wikipedia)

The other impressive thing is the research that has been done in these caves. Every inch has been laser scanned and specialists have looked at every artifact. Near the opening there is a wall with hundreds of hand prints and they belonged to a man who had crooked fingers. Deep in the caves, researchers found another painting which was done by a man who too had crooked fingers. The Chavuet painters used torches and some of them rubbed those flames against the cave walls leaving 28,000 year old charcoal fragments. A surreal moment is when Herzog tells us about two sets of foot prints: one belongs to a bear and the other to a child. Did the bear eat the child, or were they friends or were the foot prints made thousands of years apart? Again, we don’t know.
What makes this a non-boring documentary is Herzog’s commentary. His imagination is quite wild. Standing in the silence, looking at the art, he says one can hear one’s own heartbeat and the sound track switches appropriately. The cave paintings remind him of Fred Astaire’s dancing with the shadows and we get a visual from Swing Time. Then he gets the most wonderful characters to explain the past: a circus employee turned archaeologist, a scientist who walks in reindeer skin, a perfume maker who sniffs for smells in caves. These are very unique Herzog touches.
This is probably the only documentary I have seen in a theater and it was worth it.
Furthur Reading:

  1. What does the world’s oldest art say about us? The New Yorker article that inspired Herzog.
  2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), NYTimes Review
  3. Werner Herzog Finds at Least Three Dimensions in the “Cave of Forgotten Dreams
  4. Herzog on Fresh Air

Archaeology Magazine's Top 10

The Archaeology Magazine has published a list of the top 10 discoveries of 2009 and as usual there is nothing from India. But atleast it does not have vampires and pirate relics as major stories. Among the stories two are interesting: the domesticated horses of Botai and the palace of Palace of Mithradates in Kuban, Russia.

Horses were domesticated for the first time sometime between 3700 and 3100 B.C.E in Kazakhstan. The fact that horse is not native to India and was domesticated elsewhere has a profound impact on ancient Indian history. The spread of Indo-European around the world, the arrival of Indo-Aryans in North-West India and the composition of Rg Veda has always been tied to the arrival of horse riding people, though the history is much more complicated.

Mithridates VI who ruled the kingdom of Pontus from 119 to 63 B.C.E, was a contemporary of Julius Caesar, but he troubled Rome to no end. Between 89 B.C.E and 63 B.C.E, three Mithridatic wars were fought between Roman legions and Mithridates VI. He feared death by poisoning and hence poisoned himself in small doses to develop immunity. He developed his knowledge by reading Indian texts, among others. More details at The Poisons of Mithridates.

UCLA 9A: Notes on Indus Valley Lectures

The first few lectures of Introduction to Asian Civilizations: History of India, a course taught at UCLA and which has Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India as mandatory reading, talks about the Harappan Civilization. 

In Lecture 2, the instructor mentions a list of animals that were domesticated in the Indus region and adds that the horse bones were never found before 2000 B.C.E; carbon dating found horses of much later date. This for him suggests that Aryans came with their horses, from the steppes, after 2000 B.C.E and subdued the natives.

The story about horses is not that simple. As we have seen, horse bones definitely were present in Harappa, possibly before 2000 B.C.E. What the instructor conveniently left out was the fact that there were not a whole lot of horse bones even after the alleged Aryan arrival. The symbolism of asva is left out too as well as the fact that there was no massive migration from the steppes since 7000 years back.

The instructor then talks about Sarasvati, in the context of Harappan civilization and dismisses it as the work of Hindu nationalists. He  mentions that this theory is not believed by any serious scholar of Indian history and goes on to add that the irony for Hindu nationalists is that the beginnings of their civilization is outside India.

He is right about the fact the Hindu nationalists mostly believe that Ghaggar-Hakra is Sarasvati. The whole truth is that, it is not just Hindu nationalists who believe that. The following text is from a response given in the Rajya Sabha just two weeks back, by a minister belonging to the Congress Party.

The major (western most) channel of river Sarasvati remained more or less constant and unchanged and is considered to be the actual Rig Vedic Sarasvati river. The description and magnanimity of these channels also matches with the River Sarasvati described in the Vedic literature. From the prominence and width of the palaeo channels on the satellite data, supported with data from archaeological finds, age and quality of ground water, sediment type, etc., it is confirmed that river Sarasvati had its major course through present day river Ghaggar and further passing through parts of Jaisalmer and adjoining region in Pakistan and finally discharging into the Rann of Kachchh. A major palaeo channel of the river passes through Jaisalmer district while a considerable part of the river drained further, inside Pakistan. [Detection of underground water]

Also, early this year, just few miles away from UCLA, there was a conference titled International Conference on the Sindhu-Sarasvati Valley Civilization: A Reappraisal. Those who attended were Jonathan Mark Kenoyer (University of Wisconsin), Jim G. Shaffer (Case Western Reserve University), Carl C. Lamberg-Karlovsky (Harvard University), Edwin Bryant (Rutgers University), Maurizio Tosi (University of Bologna, Italy) and Nicholas Kazanas (Omilos Meleton Cultural Institute, Athens). Are they Hindu nationalists?

Also in attendance were professors of Indian origin like Subash Kak (Oklahoma State), Ashoka Aklujkar (University of British Columbia), who have been living abroad for decades. How do we know these professors are still guided by the politics of the homeland and not pure research.

In fact what is wrong in studying Sarasvati-Sindhu?

Scholars may disagree about the identity of Sarasvati with a specific modern river, about the exact course the river followed, about whether the name “Sarasvati” is borrowed from a region to the northwest of pre-partition India, about the number of sites actually close to the accepted course, about the number of sites in the north and the south of the course, about whether the river had its origin in the Himalayas, about whether the river was glacier-fed, about how closely or exactly the newly discovered sites are related to the Indus-Harappa sites, and so on. However, no scholar worth the appellation has, as far as I can determine, taken the position that the new sites cannot at all be related to the Indus-Harappa sites or are beyond the area associable with Sarasvati. If, in this state of research, some scholars wish to study the Sindhu-Sarasvati area together, what is so objectionable about it? Why should the inclusion of Sarasvati be an anathema?[Response to S. Farmer]

We have seen this pattern before: accuse anyone who holds a different point of view of being a Hindu nationalist. Hopefully, UCLA students of Indian History, will go beyond Nehru and  Doniger and read more balanced books like Edwin Bryant’s The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004) or Klaus K. Klostermaier’s A Survey of Hinduism, 3rd ed. (State University of New York Press, 2007) to understand India.

The Aryan Debate: Horse

In 1974, archaeologists J. P. Joshi and A. K. Sharma found horse bones in Surkotada, a Harappan site in Gujarat. This was a sensational discovery: first, it was the bones of a horse and second, it was dated to the period 2265 B.C.E. to 1480 B.C.E, which corresponds to the Mature Harappan period[1].

Finding horse remains, especially from India, are always controversial. For example, one of the earliest claims of horse is dated to 4500 B.C.E in the Aravalli range in Rajasthan – the same place from where the Harappans got their copper. This period is the same time when horse was first domesticated in the world. So there are questions: was the artifact obtained from a Bronze Age level even though the site was Neolithic? Was it really a horse — the Equus Caballus —rather than a donkey or onager.?

Due to the large size of bones and teeth of an onager, it is hard to distinguish it from a horse. Also sometimes the reports that come with excavations have insufficient measurements, drawings, and photographs required for independent assessment[1]. Due to this the findings are always suspect; it is always concluded that the horse arrived quite late to India.

Such questions arise because in the Indo-Aryan debate — if Vedic civilization pre-dated, co-existed or followed the Harappan civilization — a key factor is the horse. In this debate the main argument against Harappa being Indo-Aryan can be summarized as follows.

  1. According to the popular version of Indian pre-history, horse — an animal not native to India — was bought to India by the Indo-Aryans when they came in 1500 B.C.E. There is no evidence of horse in India before 1500 B.C.E.
  2. Among the numerous seals found in Harappa there is none which represent a horse, while other animals like the bull, buffalo, and goat are represented.
  3. In Rg Veda, the horse (asva) has cultural and religious significance. Since there is absence of horse in Harappa, it can only mean that the Vedic people arrived after the decline of the Harappan civilization.

The find at Surkotada upset this narrative because it crossed a lakshman rekha into Mature Harappan and also violated the threshold for the Indo-Aryan arrival. Hence the findings themselves became suspect – at least till 1991.

The eminent archaeozoologist, Sandor Bokonyi, was in Pune to attend a workshop on ‘Prehistoric contacts between South Asia and Africa’ at the Deccan College. Following the conference he spent some time in Delhi where the Excavation Branch of the ASI showed him the finds from Surkotada which consisted of six samples, mostly teeth. After examining the artifacts, he concluded that they were not of a half-ass, but a real domesticated horse[7].
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