Friends, frolics, fossils

Friday, May 5, 2017 1 Permalink 0

We have had a few weeks of visitors and lots of sightseeing, in addition to getting the garden into shape for the season.

Today we are just back from Andorra and the cavepainting site at Niaux, which I have wanted to see for years, and now finally have. It did not disappoint. Photos are not allowed inside the caves (the header photo above is borrowed from online), but the paintings are the real deal, not recreations. They are the work of human hands, some 17,000 years ago.

After hiking for 800 meters underground, you stand in the darkness in silence before each successive gallery as the guide arranges a modular spotlight in front of them on the cave floor. When the light is turned on, the paintings explode onto the stone walls. No one can help but gasp in excited wonder, in that cool underground air, sending up successive long echoes through the caverns of our collective ooohs and ahhhs in the flickering shadows.

I have never felt so close to such a distant time. We cannot know what purpose these paintings originally served, but we can appreciate them as the remnants of a foundation which we all share. We were a dozen modern people today, walking single-file through those caves so well-trodden by our ancestors – very old and very young, fat and thin, from three different language groups, of all ilks, diverse in types and temperaments – but we came out of the cave sensing a great deal more in common than one normally imagines, as spawns of a single source.

From these drawings, all of us emerged. Whatever the painters and their families were doing in the many caves stretching from northern Spain to mid-France between 32,000 and 15,000 years ago, they succeeded enough that we came to be here after them, too. It was supremely humbling.

And to my surprise it did not seem at all personal, but rather universal – something we all might have done in any other one’s place. Our individual placement in time now, or back then, or in some equally distant future, all seems pretty routine and random. The guide kept stressing how much like us they were – genetically identical, the same average height, our hands and feet fitting easily over their own prints on the rocks.

As we left the cave, an old French lady slipped in front of me on a wet uneven section of floor, and then I slipped after her in the same place. We said nothing to each other but extended a hand in the shadows underground, me to her, and then her to me in turn, when we each needed it to steady. One can imagine that happening between any two people anywhere and at any time, past or future, just two anonymous homo-sapiens making their way on the earth, side by side, cooperating. Any of us, and all of us, together.

I will never know her, of course, but in that one universal sense, I already do. In another era, we were sketching bisons together.