Unable to forget the Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Werner Herzog’s imaginative documentary captures the spirit of science, art, and humanity’s history

Over thirty thousand years ago, the human population in what is now Europe was inventing painting, sculpture, and music— and expressing themselves through art for the first time in history.

We know this because sixteen years ago, explorers discovered a perfectly preserved cave—the Chauvet cave in southern France—filled with the oldest, most intricate cave paintings ever discovered. They had been sealed by a rockslide, keeping out the rain, wind, and sun.

What was life like for our ancestors thirty thousand years ago? Many predators roamed alongside the human race, such as rhinoceroses, mammoths, lions and wolves. Glaciers covered large expanses of the earth. And there were two subspecies of humans competing for survival—both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. Homo sapiens were the ones to prevail and the ones who were capable of creating this beautiful cave art.

Today the Chauvet cave is filled with scientific knowledge about our ancestors. In an effort to preserve the condition of the art inside, access to the cave is limited. Luckily, film director Herzog secured a filming excursion inside the cave. The result is Cave of Forgotten Dreams, filled with fascinating photography that is the closest thing to time travel. And throughout the documentary, many experts in archeological sciences share their knowledge and theories, giving a glimpse into humanity’s earliest days.

My favorite line from the film is from Jean Clottes, a renowned French prehistorian. He asserted that the name we chose for ourselves, Homo sapiens (the man who knows), is incorrect. He would prefer Homo spiritualis—the man of the spirit. I believe this is true. While we humans are not omniscient, we are curious, imaginative, and purposeful beings. In the film, the curiosity and drive of the scientists studying the caves is apparent. And the men and women producing the film itself are making a work of art, parallel to the cave artists from thousands of years ago. This documentary inspires wonder for science and history, and captures the spirit of Homo spiritualis gracefully.