The film we saw at last week’s film club is called Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It is a documentary made in 2010 by Werner Herzog about the pre-historic cave paintings in the Chauvet cave in the Ardèche region of southern France. In order to preserve the paintings access is strictly limited to small scientific teams and it is not possible for the public to visit the cave. Herzog was allowed to take portable cameras, cold led lighting and a small crew into the cave.  A narrow metal walkway runs through the caves which the team had to keep to. This is to protect the cave floor which is covered in cave bear skulls and other objects. The film was made in 3D. Herzog doesn’t see the value of 3D for film-making but was persuaded it would work for this project because the cave painters took advantage of the natural contours and bulges in the rock walls. Our copy was in 2D so it is impossible to tell how much was lost of the effect of depth.

The cave was discovered in 1994 and contains the oldest known cave paintings, the earliest dating to around 32,000 years ago. The cave was detected by sensing updrafts of air from splits in the rock. The paintings in the cave are largely of large animals: aurochs, stags, horses, cave lions, cave bears, bison, mammoths, rhinoceros, ibex and so on. Most of the images are in profile. The most striking are a panel of four horse’s heads and the images of the cave lions. These are painted in echelon, walking, maybe stalking prey, the intense concentration captured by placing the dark spot on the upper edge of the eyes. In some cases movement is captured by sketching legs in multiple positions, much as a cartoonist does. The images are easily recognisable but also stylised. The bodies often have substantial heft. The paintings were made over a long period of time. Images may overlap that were painted 5,000 years apart.

There are no paintings of trees, vegetation, the sky or the landscape. It presumably can’t have been limitations in technical skill so there must be some other meaning for the selection. There is only one human figure, a women in some way coupled with a bison. This image is on a pendant rock and it’s not possible to view the whole painting because the far side isn’t accessible from the walkway.

As well as the paintings, Herzog includes footage of the nearby natural rock bridge at the Pont d’Arc and also of some contemporary artefacts from the Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany. The earliest of the so-called Venus figurines, the Venus of Hohle Fels, was found there. Like the image of the women in the cave painting, it is the image of a woman emphasizing her sexuality and fecundity. These figurines become common in later periods.  These artefacts which also include a lion-headed figure, have been dated to between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago and are the oldest examples of figurative art known. Also found was a flute made from bone. It is possible to play modern music on this instrument and in the film this is demonstrated with a rendering of the Star Spangled Banner.


The first fourfold timeline for the Upper Palaeolithic was created in 1906 by Henri Breuil. The sequence is Aurignacian; Gravettian; Solutrean and Magdalenian. The paintings at Chauvet were made during the Aurignacian cultural period, the earliest cultural period in the Upper Palaeolithic. What is interesting is that the paintings at Chauvet are as accomplished as the paintings at Lascaux and Altamira which date from the Magdalenian culture and are at least 15,000 years later, a level of cultural continuity that it is difficult to comprehend.

At Lascaux a replica of some of the caves has been made because, like the Chauvet cave, it isn’t possible to visit the original because of the damage this does to the paintings. We visited Lascaux in 2002 and also went to Pech Merle which is nearby and where it is still possible to visit the original site and stand where the painters stood. Pech Merle belongs to the Gravettian & Solutrean cultural periods and the paintings are between about 25,000 and 18,000 years old. At Chauvet, the painters made positive hand prints by applying pigment to the wall with their hands. At Pech Merle the painters developed the technique of blowing pigment. They made negative hand prints by placing their hands on the wall and blowing the pigment over them.


The discussion before the film demonstrated that our group’s knowledge of pre-history is somewhat hazy. I find it very difficult to keep the different timelines straight in my mind but I think that, told conversationally, the story goes something like this.

We are living in a time of glaciation, the fifth in the history of the Earth. In fact, the entire history of humankind has happened during a period of glaciation, the Pleistocene, the geological epoch that began around 2.588 million years ago, during which the ice sheets that cover Antarctica and Greenland have never melted. The name means the “most new”, from the Greek pleistos meaning most and kainos meaning new.

The Pleistocene has three divisions. The Lower Pleistocene runs until around 781,000 years ago, the Middle Pleistocene until around 126,000 years ago and the Upper Pleistocene until around 12,000 years ago. The division at 781,000 million years ago reflects the last reversal of the earth’s magnetic field, called the Brunhes–Matuyama reversal. The division at around 126,000 years ago is the start of the last inter-glacial before this one, which lasted until around 71,000 years ago. At the time of the last glacial maximum around 20,000 years ago sea levels were over 100 metres below where they are now meaning that there were land bridges in place which have since disappeared and presumably much once occupied terrain that is now under the ocean.

The current inter-glacial, if that is what it is, began around 12,000 years ago. The current geological epoch is called the Holocene, literally the “wholly new”, although if we are living in an inter-glacial period it seems odd to give it a new label at the same level. If we do succeed in melting the ice-caps, wouldn’t that justify breaking out a new epoch?

Inter-glacials are periods of relative warmth. Information on the dating of glaciations comes from studies of oxygen isotopes in the skeletons of marine creatures called foraminifera trapped in ocean floor sediments (*). The last inter-glacial before this one lasted around 55,000 years, from around 126,000 years ago to around 71,000 years ago. As well as lower sea levels, one of the consequences of the harsher climate is the large-scale reduction of forests and woodlands. The up-side of this is that open plains can support a much larger biomass; the mammoths and rhinoceros and the large roaming herds of reindeer, horse and bison. The last glacial maximum was around 20,000 years ago and the current inter-glacial started around 11,000 years ago. The transitions are not gradual, the swing between glacial and inter-glacial happens relatively rapidly.

The Palaeolithic is the archaeological and cultural period that runs more or less contemporaneously. It also has three divisions but unfortunately they do not align with the divisions in the Pleistocene. The Lower Palaeolithic runs until about 300,000 years ago, the Middle Palaeolithic until about 50,000 years ago and Lower Palaeolithic until about 12,000 years ago. These divisions mark changes in cultural sophistication. It is farming and herding that primarily distinguishes the Neolithic from the Palaeolithic which precedes it.

Interlaced with this is the story of the evolution and dispersal of humanity. The picture here is very difficult to understand as the evidence if often scant and open to a variety of interpretations and there are frequent new discoveries. Bipedalism seems to be the trait from which everything else flows. The relatively small and not completely bipedal Australopithecines evolved around 4 million years ago in eastern and southern Africa. The first human populations evolved around 2.6 million years ago and are called Homo habilis although some palaeontologists think these should also be classified as Australopithecines.

The Australopithecines continued to exist until perhaps 1 million years ago but by about 1.9 million years ago fully erect species much closer in size to modern humans had also evolved. There isn’t yet a consensus on whether Homo erectus, Homo ergaster, Homo heidelbergiensis and other finds are a single species or regional variations or a line of descendants. This population or populations spread across Africa and also to Europe and Asia as far east as Java. The earliest known human remains found outside Africa come from Georgia and date to about 1.8 million years ago.

The Neanderthals, Homo neanderthaliensis, were the descendants of these populations in Europe and Asia. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, descend from the populations in eastern Africa. The divergence may have started sometime around 400,000 years ago and Homo erectus is thought to have become extinct around this time, although some sites in Indonesia have been been dated to much later. The earliest evidence of modern humans is from about 190,000 years ago in Ethiopia. Possibly around 125,000 years ago modern humans first started to spread beyond Africa but the primary migration happened about 70,000 years ago. Modern humans reached not only Europe and Asia but also this time to the Americas and Australia. It seems that between about 45,000 years ago and 30,000 years ago modern human populations slowly spread across Europe while Neanderthal populations were pushed back to the Iberian Peninsula before becoming extinct. Recent carbon dating suggests the overlap was relatively short in Europe, maybe between 45,000 and 39,000 years ago, but may have begun earlier in Asia.

There may have been other populations. The Denisovans have been identified from bone and tooth fragments found in the Altai mountains in Siberia, neighbouring China. Mitochondrial DNA analysis suggests kinship with both Neanderthals and modern humans in South East Asia.

The oldest known cultural artefacts are called Oldowan after the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. Stone tools for chopping, scraping, boring and pounding were made by flaking flints. The distinction drawn between human and australopithecine was originally predicated on tool-making but it now seems that the difference is not so clear-cut. Homo habilis may have been Australopithecus habilis. The oldest collections of Oldowan tools date to about 2.6 million years ago. This technology was also used by Homo erectus and is found across Africa, Europe and Asia, including the site in Georgia.

(Update: The Guardian today 21-5-2015 reports research published in Nature which dates simple stone tool making to 3.3 million years ago. This is from Kenya. It suggests that the local population might be Australopithecus afarensis or Kenyanthropus platyops).

Oldowan and Acheulian are the two technologies of the Lower Palaeolithic. The Acheulian is named after the village of St-Acheul in France but the earliest known examples date to around 1.76 million years ago and come from Kenya. Acheulian tool-making differed from Oldowan in that the core rather than the flakes were used and bone, antler and wood were employed to shape the final product, typically a hand-axe. The Acheulian culture is associated with Homo erectus but remained the technology of early modern humans before the migration out of Africa to Europe, Asia and the New World.

The technology associated with the Neanderthals is called Mousterian after the Le Moustier rock shelter in south-west France. The tools are hand-axes, scrapers, knives and spear-heads. The fabrication technique is more sophisticated than before and involved the trimming of the core to form finer edged tools. These tools were made from around 300,000 years ago and it is the development of Mousterian technology which defines the boundary between the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic. It’s unclear what the relationship between Neanderthal and modern human was but there does appear to have been some mixing of the populations and there may have been a level of cultural exchange.

Sometime around 50,000 years ago there is an observable increase in the variety and sophistication of the stone tools. Microliths, stone tools with blades rather than just sharpened edges, were being made. There is the first evidence of fabrication of artefacts from bone, ivory and antlers, and the first evidence of artistic expression. This includes cave painting, figurines made from ivory and later ceramics, and musical instruments. These new techniques spread rapidly from Africa to Europe and Asia. The earliest technology and culture in the Upper Palaeolithic in Europe and western Asia is called Aurignacian and lasted until about 29,000 years ago. The cave at Chauvet is from this cultural and technological period. While the Aurignacian culture seems to have extended across most of Europe and western Asia, the later identifiable cultures of the Upper Palaeolithic, including the Gravettian, the Solutrean and the Magdalenian were more regionally localised.

The change in climate around 12,000 years ago led to the spread of forests from south to north. Forest habitats can support only 30% or so of the biomass of open steppe and tundra. Human populations could adjust by moving north or adapt to living in a warmer climate and adapt to hunting red deer, wild boar and wild oxen. In what is now south-west France, the transition can be seen in a rapid reduction in the scale and distribution of sites and a falling off in the variety and quality of the tools being made.

There are a number of very interesting questions which it doesn’t seem to be possible to answer definitively yet. One is when the technique for the controlled use of fire for cooking, warmth, lighting and protection was acquired. It is the controlled use that is important. Early evidence of fire going back more than 400,000 years may be the consequence of wild fires or opportunistic use. The oldest evidence of a deliberate hearth so far is from southern France and dates to about 230,000 years ago in the Middle Palaeolithic. The earliest use of ovens and kilns seems to be in the Aurignacian.

Somewhat related is the adoption of clothing. One clue is the presence of clothing lice and their genetic divergence from head lice which has been dated to around 170,000 years ago. This suggests that the early modern humans in Africa wore clothes. This doesn’t preclude the possibility that other earlier human populations outside Africa also had clothing because their clothing lice would have become extinct with them. Apparently, based on the genetics of skin coloration, humans lost their body hair almost 1 million years ago, which if it is right opens up what would seem to be an awfully long time gap without a means of keeping warm. Lack of clothing is not such a problem in the tropics but essential in colder climates.

There doesn’t seem to be any possibility yet of identifying when human beings started using symbolic language to communicate. There is a gap of some 140,000 years between the first anatomically modern humans around 190,000 years ago and the first behaviorally modern humans around 50,000 years ago but there doesn’t seem to be any method for establishing when language use first developed. Intuitively you think the cave painters must have had language but there is no way of knowing.