In the south of France lies Chauvet Cave. This subterranean museum contains some of the oldest and best-preserved paintings in the world, offering us a glimpse of life through an incomprehensible abyss of time, to some 30,000 years ago.
The world the paintings depict seems unreal and fantastical: bears and antelope and bison and horses and bulls and rhinos and on the paintings go. Back then, we lived in a much colder and drier place but the sun still shone, so there was still life in abundance and – as the paintings show – incredible diversity.
This art still tells a story. Not only of then, but of now, and of the passage of time in between. A story of changing climates. A story about loss of diversity. What I learned from Chauvet Cave was another story too: one about colonisation and imperialism. A story that questioned the idea of “sustainability” as I understood it.
And I thought I understood it well. I am studying that very subject in detail at my university. But even as a well-versed student in that field, fully immersed in that area, my virtual wandering via online research and YouTube documentaries revealed to me a huge gap in my knowledge.
So, there was a moment. Something I saw that changed me. Not inspiration, but realization. It flashed across my mind, connecting a thousand different thoughts, and asking a thousand difficult questions, inviting reflection on things I’d come to hold close. Things I’d believed in.
That’s the story I want to share – now that finally, I might have found a place to speak it, where others might hear.
It starts with Werner Herzog’s documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, which is an utterly enthralling exploration of this place that I recommend diving into if you have the time. Their on-site film beautifully captures not only the art, but the natural artistry that frames it all. The cave itself is a thing of wonder: everything is crystalline from the slow accumulation of calcite so the walls, and stalagmites and other features of the cave all sparkle in the harsh light of the cameras.
The meticulously preserved grounds of the cave are littered with the bones of many animals, and they too are covered in a mineral snow that glimmers strangely. The camera lingers long enough on these scenes – away from the paintings – to encourage an appreciation of an even greater artist at work here. Quietly and out of view, this artist etched their own stories over the interceding millennia between human visits to this hidden gallery; one that I would argue rivals the Louvre in importance.
I say that because of two paintings there and the story they tell about an entirely different way of life that existed before colonial times. An awe-inspiring culture quite different from ours. The image is of two bulls that look identical, as if painted by the same artist, or around the same time period. Here is Werner, from the documentary, explaining what you see:
‘…there are figures of animals overlapping with each other. A striking point here is that in cases like this, after carbon dating, there are strong indications that some overlapping figures were drawn almost 5,000 years apart. The sequence and duration of time is unimaginable for us today. We are locked in history, and they were not.’Werner Herzog, Cave of forgotten dreams
It’s hard to describe what those words and the art itself evoke, because it’s hard to wrap one’s head around this idea. Is it possible that life was so consistent, so continual, that for five thousand years not much changed at all? Is that what the paintings are saying? The questions alone invite a wholly different way of thinking about sustainability to the one I feel I’ve learned about so far. But surely this is one of the most profound examples one can see of sustainability, no?
Two near-identical pieces of art, overlapping, separated by five thousand years. A statement of cultural continuity spanning a frame of time we today – advanced as we consider our culture – would struggle to imagine.
If that’s a statement, it’s one hell of a statement!
From the perspective of this boringly typical member of a Western culture that is struggling to survive another year – let alone five thousand – this painting is fucking startling. Better yet, keeping in mind my ancestors once called themselves Settlers, I could describe it as unsettling.
Unmoored from the perspective of a civilization that appears all too fragile, verging on catastrophic, we can see another way of life that extended over timespans that feel impossible to us with all of these modern problems we’ve created for ourselves.
The writer and engineer Nick Arvin, whose blog post inspired me to watch the documentary, describes it beautifully:
‘They have been painted in identical style and appear as if they might have been painted by the same artist. But carbon dating has shown that they were created 5,000 years apart. From a modern perspective where paintings styles go from Modern to Postmodern in 50 years, this is difficult to grok. Herzog, in voiceover, suggests that the cave paintings show a people who lived “outside of history,” oblivious to the requirements of constant progress that drive modern civilization.’Nick arvin, Reading Journal: Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee
To help us wrap our heads around this idea, Arvin then points to another rabbit hole: a short story called Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M Coetzee who approaches the same idea from the perspective of the colonizing force. The book’s narrator is the magistrate of a frontier town in some unknown “Empire” that serves to represent imperialism more generally. Beyond the frontiers, the native people, known as Barbarians, exist in harmony with the land, as did the people who once decorated Chauvet Cave. Coetzee sums up the different worldview of imperialism, contrasting it against Chauvet’s “Two Bulls” in this way:
Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.J.M Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
These two different conceptualizations of time speak to an insurmountable incongruity between cultures. The “smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons” is contrasted against the “jagged time of rise and fall”. Coetzee’s gorgeously dense imagery transports a litany of ideas but one here rings loudest: the grounding of one’s self in the environment – the cycle of the seasons – the cyclical nature of life and death, set against the refusal to die. A belief in a self that is separated from nature, and thus, can conquer nature and its cycles. The “jagged time of rise and fall” – what we colonialists call history. Call progress. Call success. Call utopia.
Empire’s “submerged mind” has overlooked some things. We can sense it now, in the Apeilicene, as even the things we clutch for in our dreams turn to ash. Turn against us. Turn us against ourselves, and each other. “Save us from what we want”.
As the documentary later describes, these paintings were drawn by homo sapiens, in a time and space they shared with other human species like Neanderthals. The art, it is claimed, was a uniquely human endeavour; not something Neanderthals engaged in. That tells me that even back then, we must have realized (maybe even quite keenly felt) that we were somehow different from our fellow animals – even ones very like us.
And despite this, or perhaps because of it, these people managed to live for thousands of years in harmony with everything else. Bisons and bulls and bears.
Now, we see ourselves as fundamentally different and disconnected from nature – an idea that permeates our language, our thought, and our actions.
Stepping away once again from the cave art, we have to appreciate the even greater stories that this landscape tells us, and the questions it makes us ask. In one area of the cave floor there are two footprints: one belonging to a young boy, and another, to a wolf. What could these footprints, etched in calcite and the hardening of time, possibly tell us? Herzog plays out the scenarios: Was the boy being stalked by the wolf? Or were the two perhaps walking together? Perhaps instead, the two imprints – boy, and wolf – are separated by thousands of years?
We cannot know. Nature will not let us know.
She has her secrets, and this, we must respect.
In a sense, it’s easy to understand colonialism, imperialism, and colonisation at a kind of “surface” academic level because they are just ideas with characteristics and features. Ideas like any other. But when people encourage others to “decolonize” their understanding of something, it feels to me like they’re often talking about something else too; something that goes beyond just learning about a new idea and its characteristics. Part of that feels like it’s experiential; that learning about this stuff involves doing and being a part of something. Part of that feels like a radical questioning, where “de-colonizing” might resemble “de-programming”. Not just thinking about things differently, but doing things differently too. Embracing that knowledge over time. Recognizing that we cannot always find meaning in things, that we cannot know all. Camus might smile at that.