Our ancestors are separated from us by unimaginable expanses—and yet, in a few special places, they seem almost close enough to touch.

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[Previous: The Silurian hypothesis]

When you think ancient, you think pyramids.

The pyramids are the classic remnants of a vanished civilization. In their brooding solitude, they embody the idea of the past as another country, forbidding and mysterious. The people who built them seem so distant from us that they might as well have inhabited a different planet.

However, they’re not even close to the oldest things made by human hands.

The first pyramids were built between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago. Compared to a single lifetime, that’s old, but Homo sapiens has lived on this planet for 500,000 years. Compared to the full lifespan of our species, the pyramids might as well be brand-new.

Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world, whose stone walls date back 10,000 years? Keep going.

If you want ancient, you have to go back much further than that.

Down in the dark

In 1994, a team of spelunkers in the Ardèche region of southern France found a cave entrance near a natural limestone bridge that straddles a river valley. Behind a pile of tumbled stone, they discovered a magnificent cavern dripping with multicolored stalactites.

But the explorers soon made a much bigger discovery: they weren’t the first humans to set foot there.

The Chauvet cave, named after one of its modern discoverers, was a site of ancient habitation. Scattered throughout are animal bones, charred remains of fireplaces, smoke stains from torches, the preserved footprints of a young child and a dog. The skull of a cave bear is placed purposefully on a stone, as if for an altar.

But above all else, there are the paintings.

There are hundreds, drawn in charcoal and ochre on the cave’s walls. There are horses and deer and caribou, as well as species long vanished from Europe: mammoths, aurochs, lions, hyenas, rhinos. They’re not primitive scrawls, but lifelike depictions made by talented artists.

In some places, they’re superimposed on top of each other. It could be ancient avant-garde art, like the 20th-century Cubists who tried to depict an object from multiple angles at once. However, some archaeologists have made the daring suggestion that they weren’t meant to be static images, but animated paintings. In the flickering, shifting light of the artists’ torches, the animals would have seemed to gallop, paw the ground, toss their heads.

Preserved by the dark, they seem as if their makers had completed their work only yesterday. But that impression belies their staggering age. Carbon dating indicates that the Chauvet paintings were made over 33,000 years ago. They predate the pyramids of Egypt or the oldest cities of the Middle East by tens of thousands of years. They’re older than agriculture, older than writing, older than woven cloth or pottery. They’re millennia older, even, than the better-known cave paintings of Lascaux.

The Last Glacial Maximum

This was the era of the Last Glacial Maximum. In this time period, northern Europe was buried beneath vast walls of ice, hostile, uncrossable. Southern Europe was a patchwork of tundra, steppe and evergreen forest. It would have been mild in the summer, bitterly cold during the winter. Human beings inhabited the continent, but there were no cities, no permanent settlements. Europe was a primeval wilderness which we roamed as hunter-gatherer tribes, wearing furs and using tools of stone and bone.

The artists of the Chauvet cave lived in a world we can scarcely imagine. They saw woolly mammoths with their own eyes. They might have traded with Neanderthals, or fought them, or intermarried with them. Compared to them, the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians were our next-door neighbors.

They drew the world around them as they saw it, but they didn’t include their own presence in the landscape. It seems an almost deliberate decision to tantalize us.

And yet, despite the paintings’ immense age, there’s a vital current of humanity running through them. When you see them (in documentaries like Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams), you can feel the shadowy presence of the artists moving through the cave. You can imagine them daubing pigment on the walls, trying to capture what they saw in their mind’s eye. Although they’re immeasurably far from us, across gulfs of time, it almost seems possible to reach out and touch them through what they left behind.

One striking fact is that there are no human figures. There’s one partial female form that may have been a fertility symbol, and there are handprints made by people blowing ochre over their fingers. But other than that, the artists chose not to depict themselves. They drew the world around them as they saw it, but they didn’t include their own presence in the landscape. It seems an almost deliberate decision to tantalize us, as if they wanted to tell us this much about themselves, but no more.

There’s endless speculation about what the paintings were for. One common suggestion is that they served a mystical or ritualistic purpose. Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Shaman, which imagines the lives of the people who made the paintings, takes the stance that they were used in shamanic initiation ceremonies.

Whatever motive inspired their creators, the Chauvet cave paintings and other things like them (such as these even older artifacts, a collection of 43,000-year-old bone flutes) are a reminder to us to have some humility about our place in the universe. We’re only the latest wave washing over the shore in an ocean of deep time.

We’re only the latest wave washing over the shore in an ocean of deep time.

There are whole realms of history that are unknown to us. There are countless stories that will never be told, countless lives that burned bright and fell into ash without leaving a record. Our civilization, our industry, our art, our religion is only a brief instant—a single paragraph on a single page in the grand archive of humanity.

We know so little about where our species has come from, let alone where it’s going. This alone is reason to be skeptical of any ideology, church or nation that proclaims itself the apex of history, the culmination of all that came before, or the one and only way that human beings are meant to live. In the flickering light of ancient painters’ torches, such a claim stands naked, revealed as wild arrogance.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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