Friday, 25 March 2011

Dreams of Neanderthal Paintings at Chauvet

An article in the guardian ( discusses a new documentary on the Upper Palaeolithic paintings at Chauvet cave in France, called Cave of Forgotten Dreams and directed by Werner Herzog.

I looked forward to reading about this documentary, but my excitement was soon overshadowed by a glaring error by the reviewer, Peter Bradshaw.  To be fair, he is a film critic, not an archaeologist, but I'm suprised after having viewed the documentary he's still left fuzzy about who the artists of Chauvet's paintings were:

"...the extraordinary Chauvet cave in the south of France, named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, the explorer who in 1994 made a Tutankhamun-level discovery: hundreds of pictures of animals drawn with flair, sophistication and detail by Neanderthal man around 32,000 years ago."

I don't think I'm being a pedant by being offended by this error...!  At 32,000 years ago, in current understanding, Neanderthals were limited to the Iberian peninsula - and have never been associated with cave paintings of any kind.  Until recently, no form of art was attributed to Neanderthals with any consensus at all - so the attribution of this equvalent of the painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a bit suprising to anyone who has had a passing interest in human prehistory.

I think this is a good example of the public perception of human prehistory, our own ancestry - we see titles in newspapers about Neanderthals wearing makeup and how Neanderthals never died out because they live on in our genes, and these are the sort of ideas we carry around in our heads about our past.  Cave men - were they Neanderthals or humans?  Did humans evolve from Neanderthals?  What was the difference?  I suspect most peoples answers deviate quite far from current (or even past) research.  Readers have picked up on the error in the comment section, but further misunderstandings about Neanderthals are quickly raised. 

Solutions?  Do we need one?  This makes me wonder how prehistory is covered in school...


  1. Prehistory isn't really covered in British schools Cory...

  2. Shame about a film critic's error, but yes I agree with Thomas above, as Prehistory is rarely mentioned in our schools, and so we are free to research and uncover the facts ourselves, and so errors are bound to be made.

    Cory, I thank you for your wonderful work in the field of palaeontology and palaeoanthropology, great to read and fascinating stuff. I watched Cave of Forgotten Dreams and experienced chills; if only I could visit for myself, I can only imagine what my senses and paintbrush would do.


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