A few days ago, The Guardian published an article about the discovery of prehistoric rock paintings in a remote part of the Colombian jungle. Filmmaker Mike Slee was working on a film about the country’s natural wonders when he stumbled onto the heretofore un-photographed reddish-hued paintings on cliff walls in the Chiribiquete National Park. The terrain is so dense that Slee had to examine the rock art from a helicopter, which explains why most of the world has remained unaware of the paintings until now. They mainly depict local animals, including jaguars and crocodiles, but Slee also reported seeing human figures, including a seated man, warriors, and hunters. The paintings are said to be mineral-based, which would make dating them difficult, but it has been hypothesized that they could be as much as 20,000 years old, older than the cave paintings at Lascaux.
Prehistoric art is cloaked in mystery, so much more so than the art of later eras. Who were the people that made these images and why did they make them? What was the point? Was it “art for art’s sake” or did it serve some function that the sands of time have hidden from us? Prehistoric art is just as fascinating as it is difficult to teach to undergraduates. After all, there’s not a lot of concrete information about the art that might help to capture a college student’s interest, a task made all the more difficult given the inherent simplicity of the art. So much of what we teach students about these works of art is conjecture: They could be part of hunting traditions or training; they could have been created as talismans; maybe they were a means of historical record keeping. The textbooks have not come to a consensus.
On the other hand, the fact that so much remains unknown allows our imaginations to run absolutely wild. To that end, I cannot recommend Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (which is really deserving of its very own blog post) highly enough. The film takes a close look at the 30,000-year-old paintings from the Chauvet cave in southern France. But it is so much more than that: It is an in-depth meditation on the lives of prehistoric people and the meaning of art, and it includes this gem of a quotation: “Do they dream? Do they cry at night?” The film helps your fancies take flight, in case your imagination is sluggish.