Cope With The Creepy

Rouffignac Cave
By Kes Schroer
May 10, 2013

Simple engravings are found everywhere in Rouffignac Cave. The ends of these engravings show that they were made by human fingertips pressed against the cave wall. The widths of these engravings also show that many engravings were made by young children, some as young as 2 years old. Image from http://www.history.com/news/prehistoric-children-finger-painted-on-cave-walls.

My certificate in zombie special effects makeup has come in handier in graduate school than I ever could have imagined. As my office mates can tell you, I’m easily startled and even the most benign of horror films (i.e., Shaun of the Dead) can keep me awake for three nights. A semester spent around zombies forced me to “cope with the creepy” and learn to find calm in discomforting situations.

Now, I could spend this blog telling you about how zombies are like cadavers in an anatomy lab. But those aren’t the discomforting situations to which I’m referring, and cadavers aren’t anything like zombies. Whereas zombies are fictional (for now…), cadavers are very, very real. Cadavers are tangible and finite; although there are many parts of their puzzle, if you search hard enough and long enough, you will find all the pieces. Situations that are truly discomforting are situations that trouble you and stick with you, situations that get inside your head.

In that sense, Rouffigac Cave is my prehistoric zombie movie. My visit to Rouffigac Cave is hands-down the creepiest experience I have ever had. I was initially blasé about the cave. Like most kids, I’d grown up seeing pictures of cave art, and I had a vague sense that cave art was special to the cavemen and women who had made it. If I had been a child in a European elementary school, maybe I would have made a class trip to see the caves at an early age and learned to respect the cave’s immense value to understanding human evolution. Instead, I had a simplistic vision of Rouffignac. I imagined strolling along the well-lit, museum-like walls of the cave, snickering at the simplicity of the painting’s finger-paint-like quality or pretentiously commenting on the eternal creativity of the human spirit.

When the lights went out, all of that fell away. There is nothing on earth darker than a cave. Even at night, stars and cities offer a little light to guide the way. But inside a cave, there is nothing but darkness. I could no longer tell how far away the walls of the cave were, and even the voice of the person right next to me sounded strangely far away. The walls turned in and out in strange waves, carved by natural forces, and it was not easy to predict whether I should have turned left or right or even if I should have stepped up or down. If not for the little flashlight at the front of our train car, I would have easily been lost forever merely a hundred yards into the cave.

We traveled slowly into the cave, visiting a few famous pieces of cave art along the way. Many of the finest examples were cave carvings, not paintings, and I learned that these carvings were not simply the work of chisels against the cave wall. Prehistoric peoples carefully chose features of the natural cave wall to incorporate into their art, merging the cave itself with their own creative intentions. A bump on the wall might become a horse’s stern eye, or a ridge might become the proud back of a mammoth. As we traveled deeper into the cave, I thought every wave of the wall was a new animal, as if a million mammoths were suddenly descending around us. In some ways, the cave art served only to highlight the mysterious features of the cave that already existed around us, leading us to expect new animals in the darkness and disappointing us when the light revealed nothing but stone.

Paintings and carvings from Altamire Cave show how prehistoric peoples used natural features of the cave walls to help form the shapes of animals. Image from http://donsmaps.com/altamirapaintings.html.

A visit to Rouffignac Cave is strange even in modern times, but for prehistoric peoples this might have been at the boundaries of real and unreal. We reached the end of the cave by a train built into specially widened tunnels, but prehistoric peoples would have crawled a kilometer on their hands and knees to reach the end of the cave. The darkness and the cave would have pressed on them from all sides, and paintings and carvings would have been made in this tiny space by lying on the cave floor. Eventually, prehistoric peoples would have reached the end of the cave and knelt over a large pit that stretches three stories down into the depths of the cave. This pit is the site of the Grand Ceiling, a famous collection of over one hundred painted and carved animals, that was created by standing on scaffolds set over the pit. Although the fragile nature of the cave prevented us from climbing down into this pit, we could just make out the cave art that stretched from the pit’s lowest floor all the way back up to the Grand Ceiling where we stood. One of those pieces of art was a human face, staring back at us.

Rouffignac left me troubled. There are many questions of human evolution that we can answer by looking at biology. Cadavers, for instance, can help us understand how nerves generate feeling in our fingertips, how the tongue helps us process food for eating, or how the muscles move the bones of our legs so that we can walk. But cadavers can’t tell us why we venture into the darkness of caves, not knowing if we will ever find the way back out. Cavaders can’t tell us why an artist paints an image of animal or a human face, or why people other than the artist might like to look at that image. Cave art encourages us to consider the parts of human evolution that may be just beyond the reach of our current understanding of human biology and pushes us into the realm of the unknown and the uncomfortable. Cave art is haunting – and the pun is fully intended.