Into Eternity

In the past couple of months, I've seen two documentaries that provide rather daunting commentaries on both the immensity and miniscule nature of what it means to be human ...

The first, Cave of Forgotten Dreams from 2010, is quite well-known, directed by the prolific German film-maker Werner Herzog.

It's about the Chauvet Cave in southern France, the site of what are believed to be perhaps the oldest, but probably the second-oldest, examples of cave art in the world, approximated at about 30,000 to 35,000 years of age.

Thanks to a rockslide sealing the cave about 27,000 years ago, the stunning charcoal and red ochre paintings were not seen by humans until the cave was re-discovered in 1994 by three speleologists, one of whom, Jean-Marie Chauvet, scored naming rights (and has plans to set up a Burger King nearby - jokes).

Anyway, I can't do the doco justice here but strongly recommend a viewing (though the movie has no 'plosions, sex or gunplay, so it may be classed as "slow" by some).

The paintings it showcases portray more than a dozen different animal species, including cave lions (pictured), panthers, bears, cave hyenas and wooly rhinoceroses - all of which used to kick around France during the last ice age.

However, one of the most haunting facts about the cave springs from a wall that features a more familar animal - horses - in the rather unimaginatively named "Panel of Horses".

"By comparing all the paintings in the cave, it seems certain the horses of this panel were created by one single individual," says Herzog in the movie.

"But in the immediate vicinity of the horses, there are figures of animals overlapping with each other. The striking point here is that in cases like this, after carbon-dating, there are strong indications some overlapping figures were drawn almost five thousand years apart.

"The sequence and duration of this timeframe is unimaginable to us today. We are locked in history and they were not," says Herzog.

Just consider this for a moment: the visitors to this cave - more than likely shamans, their followers and children - were working on this wall of drawings over a period of time as long as recorded human history (beginning circa 3000 - 3400 BC when writing was invented in Sumer).

The Egyptian, Ottoman, Persian, Mongol, Roman and British empires rose and fell in the same amount of time; the Qing, Yuan, Ming and Tang Dynasties came and went; the Mayans and Aztecs flowered and died - all in the same amount of time these people were visiting and adding to just this one particular wall of cave paintings.

And we think we're showing loyalty if we go to the same pub or club for five, ten, 20 years?

The second documentary, also from 2010, is titled Into Eternity and is no less thought provoking.

It's the story of the construction, now well underway, of a first-of-its-kind nuclear waste storage facility known as Onkalo, 500m underground in the bedrock of Eurajoki, on the west coast of Finland.

What is mind-boggling about this project is that Onkalo must remain intact for 100,000 years - the time it will take the spent nuclear fuel it contains to become harmless to life on this planet.

Michael Madsen (not Mr Blonde from Resevoir Dogs), the director and narrator of Into Eternity, explains: "Nothing built by man has lasted even a tenth of that timespan".

What I found moving about this film was the interviews with the engineers and scientists responsible for conceiving and building Onkalo and how deeply they'd struggled with the philosophical questions posed by their undertaking.

Foremost of these is how they can communicate to future generations that Onkalo is a place of death and danger. What is to stop our curious or treasure-hunting descendants from tunneling down to the structure in a thousand years? In 20,000 years?

A big warning sign?

Will they even understand the languages we now speak?

It took us centuries to decipher Sumerian cuniform and Egyptian hieroglyphs and even then it didn't stop us opening tombs and pyramids warning of death to all who entered.

And the Sumerians and ancient Egyptians lived only five to ten thousand years ago.

It's just staggering to comprehend what people will be like in 30,000 years - because they are as far removed from who we are as are those shamans sketching lions on the walls of the Chauvet Cave.

Now double that timespan, triple it, to 90,000 years and Onkalo is still unsafe, still a place of death.

How do we explain this to those future humans - that this is our legacy and their inheritance?

Do we care?

Oh well, better get back to worrying about Alan Jones and my iPhone battery.

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