Spirits in the Cave

Chauvet Cave images

I dragged my pal Bob to a packed theatre to see the new documentary about caves in France that reveal stories of ancestors from 32,000 years ago. Werner Herzog’s new film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, explores the pristine Chauvet Cave, closed to all but a few scientists, and I was hoping the documentary would illuminate some of the issues we face between Western and Native sciences.

If you haven’t seen images from the cave, you can get an eyeful at http://www.donsmaps.com/chauvetcave.html

In the film one of the scientists said he kept having dreams of the animals painted on the cave walls. He says: “It was an emotional shock. I mean, I am a scientist but a human, too.”

In the film where scientists are presented as regular folk, dreams permeate the discourse. Herzog wonders, “Do the paintings dream?” The New York Times review said Herzog “moves in a realm beyond empiricism, in a world of dreams and stories.” And, at some level, the film nudges us to think about our collective dreams.

Unlike the discourse over Kennewick Man, the documentary embraces the humanity of us all: scientist, ancestor, juggler and artist. We all claim kinship to the cave denizens and, Herzog offers, we all dream the same dreams even if, as the title suggests, some have been forgotten.

Scientist Jean Clottes says in the film that we need to remember the world was “suffused with fluidity and permeability;” that what we today take as boundaries between, say the physical and spiritual worlds, were permeable notions to our ancestors. Imagine that the wall bearing the cave bear or lion is not a wall at all, but an appendage of the painter.

Such notions resonate well with Native American spirituality where the so-called boundaries between the natural and spirit worlds intersect. While the scientists in the new documentary embrace the phenomenological with the empirical, the scientists embroiled in the Kennewick Man conflict diminished the views of the Indian tribes as being unscientific and irrelevant, arguing that their views, their priorities and their agendas trumped Native views, priorities and agendas.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, cinema, film, framing, Indian, Kennewick Man, Native Science, repatriation, science, science communication and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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