3D Cave Art: The Closest You Can Get to Time Travel

Werner Herzog, film maker and would-be Cro-Magnon man. Photo by Mark Valesella.

Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” opens in theaters across the U.S. this weekend, and reveals in eye-opening 3D the dark, undulating, awe-inspiring interior of France’s Chauvet Cave, decorated by humans some 32,000 years ago with lifelike images of the animals with whom they shared the landscape. It reveals the oldest known figurative paintings in the world.

Photos of the highly restricted cave have been available since shortly after its discovery in 1994, but even being familiar with them cannot prepare you for the otherworldly experience of being immersed in the paintings and the cave itself in three dimensions.

As cave art expert Jean Clottes said, “In a book you have far more details…[but] even if the photos are stunning, etc., first of all they’re not life size, they’re small, and second you miss the reality.” The film, with its movement and visual depth, is more like visiting the caves in person, where no matter how familiar people are with the photos, they become “dumbfounded, they have an emotional shock.”

I spoke to director and narrator Werner Herzog during a press call, and also to Jean Clottes, who is featured in the film and was for many years director of scientific research at the cave.

Cue the Time Line

Despite the vast amount of time that has passed since their creation, Herzog found the apparent freshness of the paintings to be one of the most stunning things about working with them up close. “It’s as if you were disturbing people right in the middle of their work,” he said.

If we were disturbing them at that time, we’d all look a heck of a lot younger. This cave was painted long before the Roman Empire, the Pyramids of Egypt, or the life of the Ice Man. Think the paintings of Lascaux are old? They are only as old now as Chauvet’s were when Lascaux itself was painted.

A rough time line showing how very long ago the paintings of Chauvet were made.

Modern Man in an Ancient World

Given the great depth of time that has passed, one might think a lot has changed. Art for instance has gone from charcoal drawings on cave walls to 3D films shown around the world.

I asked Herzog if he ever imagines himself back in the time of the cave painters. “Yes, very eagerly so,” he said. “I think I would have made a good Cro-Magnon man.” He then described his plan for how he would have hunted horses, which he imagines would have been easier to catch than deer, because they run more predictably. That’s Werner Herzog, thinking out of the box before boxes were even invented.

A Long Path to Get Here

Known for his strange and intense dramas like “Fitzcarraldo,” and the existential musings in his documentaries like “Grizzly Man,” Herzog might seem an odd choice for a “science movie.” When first presented with the idea though, he himself jumped at it.

As a young boy growing up in rural Bavaria, without telephone or television, he had seen a now classic book about Lascaux in a shop window, and was transfixed. “I’ve got [the same book] in my library,” Jean Clottes said as he retold Herzog’s story to me. “I can see it from where I’m sitting.”

Young Werner worked, saved his money, always checking the shop window, afraid the one copy would be gone, and then finally bought the book. “This was my first intellectual awaking…It was my first venturing out into something that fascinated me. And this awe of it that I felt at that time when I was twelve is still like a distant echo in me.”

Additionally, archaeology is part of his family heritage. “My grandfather was an archaeologist who did his life’s work in Greece,” he said. “From age 15 on I went to see the place where he’d done it. I followed his footsteps.” Rudolph Herzog had “discovered and excavated the Asklepieion [of Kos]…an ancient spa where [a doctor] would have pupils and his patients, and temple areas and things like that.”

So when given the opportunity to make this film there was no question for grown-up Werner. “I immediately said yes.”

Werner Herzog and crew filming in Chauvet along the narrow path on which they had to keep. Photo Credit: Mark Valesella. A Sundance Selects Release



“I am a Scientist, but a Human, Too”

Filming inside the cave required great patience and control, as the crew was small and needed to keep to the protective walkway that’s been installed in the cave. Still, the pressures of film making didn’t detract from the emotional impact of the experience, and Herzog shared the sentiment expressed by many of Chauvet’s visitors.

Jean Clottes spoke of how when people first enter the cave, “they cannot think; they feel.” The first time they enter the cave, they spend three to four hours inside and then “they are sort of dazed, really! Then the next day they don’t go to the cave….and then the day after they go back to the cave and then they think about it.” Being in the full cave environment, surrounded by giant animal paintings, strange shapes, and total darkness is “quite different, you see.”

Click the image above to explore the cave of Niaux, also in France, in this interactive GigaPan.

Another researcher tells a similar story in the film. While spending the better part of a week working in the cave studying a series of images of lions, “every night I was dreaming of lions,” he tells us. “And every day was the same shock for me. It was an emotional shock. I mean, I am a scientist, but a human too.  And after five days I decided not to go back in the cave because I needed time just to relax and take time to absorb it.”

“And you dreamed not of paintings of lions but of real lions?” Herzog’s voice interjects into the film. “Of both!” the young archaeologist replies. “Of both, definitely.”

Silence, Fire, and Fear in the Cave

Herzog then asks this archaeologist about the sense of fear in the dreams. The young man is taken aback. It wasn’t fear he felt. The dreams were “powerful, deep,” he says. He wasn’t afraid at all.

Jean Clottes also provided a testament to the positive feelings that these emotional experiences can cause. He said that during filming, even at meals Herzog would make him talk, and would ask lots of questions like “How do you feel when you’re inside the cave? Aren’t you tense?” and so on.


Click the photo above to explore a GigaPan of rock art at Hoyo de Sanabe in the Dominican Republic, and to reveal the myths behind the images.

“Well, I’ve been in caves most of my life,” he said. “When I’m in a cave I’m very, very relaxed because in a cave you hear nothing…except perhaps the dripping of water once in a very long while.” (Here he made a perfect French onomatopoeia for water dripping in a cave.) “There is no wind, there is nothing. There is no draft to speak of…so there is no place that is as quiet as a cave.”

“So I told him the silence may be so deep that after a while sometimes, you can hear your own heartbeat, and that’s true! ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘I’ve got to put this in the film!’ and he made me repeat it, and repeat it, and repeat it.” The scene that made it into the final cut ended up being one of the emotional high points of the film.

Activity No. 1

One thing that the film cannot convey is how the paintings looked to people when being created or used for their original purpose. One of the biggest differences being that now, to avoid damage from smoke or flame, all lighting is by powerful electric light. Back then of course, it was all from fat or oil lamps, or open fires. In that environment, flames would have jumped all around, changing the light and casting ever changing shadows on every nook and cranny in the cave.

To get a sense of the difference in mood such light can create, Jean Clottes suggests the following experiment (ideally suited for older siblings):

“If you want to make an experiment, you can do it easily. You take a kid [about] five years old. Go [together] down a celler where there is no light, with a big torch [or a “flashlight” in American English]. OK. The kid wont be afraid. Do the same thing with a candle and you’ll see a big difference…”

The Man of Forgotten Dreams

Perhaps the most illuminating discovery to come out of our conversation with Werner Herzog was a clue into the deeper meaning of the name of the film itself. In discussing the archaeologist with the lion dreams he said, “It’s beautiful that he dreams not only of painted lions, but [also] of real lions, but unfortunately I personally do not have dreams at night.”

“Always each morning I feel, like, a void, that I haven’t dreamt again. And probably because of that I may be the one who has to make films. Could be,” he adds, not willing to be to definite about it. Connecting this back to the title of the film, it seems we can think of modern humans looking back at this lost chapter in our prehistory, as being like Herzog himself, waking up now and seeing the art of the past, suddenly aware that we’ve been asleep, and that something happened that we just can’t call to mind any longer.


What Remains a Mystery

Through his film, Herzog has revealed for modern viewers the physical appearance of the paintings and the atmosphere of the cave. Seeing it we feel closer than perhaps ever before to these ancient artists. But what still remains a mystery is why these people made these images, what their rituals were like, what they thought of the whole experience.

Towards the end of our interview, Herzog the storyteller captured this mystery even without film footage to illustrate it. “There’s a tiny little fissure in the wall,” he began. “A little concavity” containing two teeth of a cave bear. “It’s so hidden that you can’t really film it.”

“And what happened there? We don’t know. A cave bear certainly didn’t fit two teeth into this little fissure and recess. It must have been a human being. Why did they do that?…Was it a child playing there? What was going on is so mysterious, completely awesome and mysterious.”

With “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Herzog doesn’t solve any of those mysteries. He brings us into the Earth, into our past, and shows us just enough to make us realize what a rich and exciting mystery our own human story is.

"Cave of Forgotten Dreams" theatrical poster. A Sundance Selects Release.


See More Cave Art From National Geographic

Niaux Cave GigaPan

Hoyo de Sanabe GigaPan

World’s Oldest Optical Illusion Found?

70th Anniversary of the Discovery of Lascaux


Human Journey

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of nationalgeographic.com for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.