The pictorial richness impressed on this chamber has earned it its nickname: “The Sistine Chapel” of cave painting.
A psychonautic adventure into the Altamira Caves /
“Aren’t our budgets only wild speculations?” This is the disquieting question that the German director, Werner Herzog, instigates us with during his indispensable documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, filmed in the Chauvet-Pont-d’arc, in Southern France. With the exceptional permission of the French government, the director of Aguirre, the Cholera of God, entered, with scarce means and an inextinguishable curiosity into the damp and guttural interior of a cave plagued decorated with enigmatic prehistoric paintings. It is as close as we’ve ever been to experiencing time travel, a voyage into a world that existed 30,000 years ago.
The same unspeakable mystery and emotions that overcame the filmmaker could be compared to the experiment that five people, who were chosen at random, underwent when they entered the cave of Altamira, in Cantabria —also known as the “Sistine Chapel” of cave painting and which was closed for twelve years due to conservational issues. Following extreme safety measures, covered head to toe in white suits like those in science fiction novels, the chosen ones entered this archetypal vortex. After only ten minutes, the visitors agreed that those paintings looked as if they’d only had just been made by the paintbrush of the artist who created them, and they also felt close to “something important”.
Entering one of these caves is perhaps the greatest voyage a human can dream of; seeing the prints left by the first men, the enigmatic tracks that they left behind in the cold and damp rocks that directly link us to a time which we only understand superficially.
Why should we represent those bison, deer and horses there? What moved those men to feel the urge to impress on the stone those restless sparks of their imagination? And why did they choose those stylized, sublimated forms that at times reach the depurated precision of the symbol?
The visitors must have felt something pull at the strings of their hearts when they thought that, deep down, those beings could not have been all that different to us: eager for experience, constantly overwhelmed by the need for adventure, possessed by the desire to explore and constantly striving to overcome their own limitations.
There are many hypotheses that surround the reason behind these paintings: ornamentation, magic, a link between the individual and the totem, the religious character of the cave as a sanctuary, representation of oneiric visions, uterine reminiscence, etc. Leroy Gourham, one of the most distinguished researchers in the field, developed a conceptual system, based on structuralism, according to which certain grouping patterns and the repetition of figures existed, and which made them easily identifiable. He imagined the pictorial profusion of rocks like a constellation waiting to be read by the most inventive of readers.
Paleoanthropologic speculation has not ceased to create different hypotheses; however, for the visitor this is perhaps not important. Explaining or being unable to determine why these proto-men did what they did may not be an impediment for those who enter these lithic museums since they will still be surrounded by their mystery. What Herzog asks before the Chauvet caves continues to be suitable. Finally, there exists a type of communication which is not based on calculus or proof, an emergence that without reason is capable of transporting us beyond ourselves and our ideas and prefabricated concepts —like a leak in our cultural ecosystem.
This is the essence of every journey: seeing ourselves immersed in the unknown in order to understand ourselves a little better. And if we’re lucky enough and they trip will take us back 30,000 years in time, then we might even be able to understand who we are, why we are her and why we continue to venture into shadows, restlessly, to rescue small sparks of light, like those distant relatives who, in the impenetrable darkness of the cave, gave birth to images that invite us to dream about ourselves and our remotest origins.Tagged: Altamira, History, psychonautic, trips and travelers