One of the remarkable hallmarks of the cave, aside from the paintings and fossilized animal bones (no human remains have been discovered in the cave except for a child's footprint), is the pristine nature in which the cave was found. Thousands of years ago, a rock slide closed off the cave’s main entrance. Because of the inaccessibility caused by the slide, the elements and other disruptive forces such as humans and other mammals, or mold and bacteria were essentially kept out of the space. This left the cave sealed and created an environment which allowed the paintings to be preserved and untouched for tens of thousands of years.
The caves were found by a spelunker team lead by Jean-Marie Chauvet in 1994. Once it became apparent that the historical significance of the find would lead to its demise if left unattended, the French Government and its antiquities arm quickly sealed off the small entrance with a bolted metal door. In addition, inside the cave the space now has a two-foot wide metal ramp that must be walked on so the integrity of the space is not damaged by researchers, the only people allowed access to the cave, from walking wherever they wish.
Sadly, the French government learned a sad lesson of having these finds left open to the public as tourist attractions. The caves at Lascaux are no longer accessible because of the impact both human interest and interference has had on the biosphere of the site. Such access ultimately caused mold to form on the cave walls which continues to damage the natural history of the cave and the paintings. The French Government did not want to see this happen to the Chauvet Caves and they have limited access to scientists, archeologists and paleobotanists in small groups to research and map the cave and its history. The only exception of course has been to allow a small film crew led by Mr. Herzog into the find to document it and share its value with the world.
As a filmmaker, Mr. Herzog pays deep respect to both the Cave and those working to understand the cultural, spiritual, archaeological, and artistic meaning of the representations found inside its cavernous walls. There are interviews with numerous archeologists, historians, and expert and amature researchers. Several of the scientists offer examples of both actual and copies of Paleolithic cultural artifacts such as throwing spears, hollowed out bone flutes (found in nearby German caves), and Venus figures carved of bone.
Those interviewed also discuss the external environment at the time when the paintings were made. This environment was drier and colder, and would have allowed our ancestors to walk unheeded across most of glacial Europe to hunt, while at the same time living next to, cooperating with socially and perhaps genetically, or out hunting and otherwise annihilating the last remnants of the Neanderthals.
If you are in New York, the film is playing at the IFC Center on 6th. Avenue. While the ticket price is a bit extreme ($17-a-person), seeing the film in 3-D does offer the filmgoer an amazing view and vision of the cave and the mountainous areas along side and around the location of the find. If you can download or see the film in another or regular format, then by all means catch it anyway you can. No matter how you see the film, you will come away more fascinated and intrigued by our collective past. That in itself may serve as the best way to honor our ancestors who made the paintings, the modern scientists who diligently work to understanding the meaning and context of the cave’s paintings and of course the filmmaker, Mr. Herzog.