In December 1994, three scientists happened upon a cave in southern France that had been sealed by a rock slide tens of thousands of years earlier. Further exploration yielded an astonishing discovery: the oldest known cave paintings in the world, magnificently preserved in the sealed environment, and dating back some 30,000 years.
The cave was immediately shut off from visitors by the French government in order to preserve the integrity of the site, which also contains a multitude of animal bones (including the skulls of extinct cave bears). Entrance is currently reserved for a select few anthropologists, art historians, archaeologists, and, for a few days anyway, a documentary film crew.
Legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog was granted unprecedented access to Chauvet Cave a few years ago to make Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a wondrous film that allows us, too, to have an up-close view of the astonishing paintings of bears, lions, horses, mammoths, rhinos, and even the hand prints of some of the Stone Age artists. (The scientists can trace the movement of one individual artist through the cave because of his irregularly-shaped pinkie finger.)
Herzog himself is more of an artist than a strict documentarian. While there’s a good deal of information in the film, it’s most valuable as an opportunity to just see the paintings (the camera lingers on them for minutes at a time), to experience the mystery of their origins, and to ruminate on the connections between those ancient people, who made some of the earliest art we know, and ourselves.