Through the latter part of the 20th century, it became increasingly difficult for nonprofessional travelers to visit the ancient caves of Europe. These are the sites of the renowned cave paintings, seen by most of us only in replica. The most venerable of them are dated to around 30,000 years ago. It was in these places that the older Neanderthals and the upstart Cro-Magnon negotiated dominion over the lands of Europe and Asia. The Cro-Magnon prevailed and the Neanderthals disappeared.
On a trip to Madrid in 2002, we saw re-creations of parts of Spain’s Altamira Cave and read about its discovery in 1879. This is as close as I have come to a direct experience of these astounding painted ceilings. There was a three-year waiting list to visit the original “Cuevas de Altamira” on the north coast of Spain. Our guidebook said that these Ice Age murals date from circa 18,000 BCE. Later discoveries of a complex cave system at Lascaux, France came in 1940. Both of these discoveries were made by children and there ought to be a movie in that. The damaging properties in the breath of tourists has forced the closing of these caves and the creation of simulated caves nearby for the enjoyment of thousands. Apart from some background documentaries, the only movie in my archive that features cave paintings is Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), which might be called a mainstream documentary. He was allowed brief access to Chauvet Cave, discovered in France in 1994, and had to make quick work of it. The movie reports that the cave contains the second oldest cave paintings yet to be discovered.
There are only a few movies that make any attempt to capture the time when Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon met, and they are all questionable. The best of them is Quest for Fire (1981), though it has its lapses. The standard drops considerably with the next in line, Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), and it is downhill from there. The most that can be said of these efforts is that they occasionally display the stunning landscapes that hosted these turning points in the human journey. They can still be seen along the northern shores of the Black Sea today. Hollywood has given us many travesties and blatant anachronisms set in the time of the caves, the camp classic of which is One Million Years B.C., starring the monumental Raquel Welch. You may also wish to appreciate Ringo Starr doing Neanderthal shtick in Caveman (1981), with action set in “One Zillion BC, October 9th.”