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Into Eternity

Chauvet Cave.

Chauvet Cave.

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.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

44 comments so far

  • Enormity. "I do not think it means what you think it means". (Happy 25th b'day Princess Bride). 'Immensity' is prolly what you are after... however... on cynical days, the current context may be fitting.

    Mr Coot
    Date and time
    October 04, 2012, 5:09PM
    • Now brace yourself for the inevitable; "But, but... BUT language is an organic construct constantly changing its parameters and layers of meaning blah blah blah which means I'm right and I get to misuse words however I want".

      Red Pony
      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 3:55PM
    • Hey Sam, still really angry and stuck at the Toxteth? Stuffed up any more pool games?

      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 10:02PM
  • 100,000 years is nowhere near enough for things like uranium-238 (half-life is about 4.47 billion years) and uranium-235 (704 million years).

    Even Pu-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years and there will still be a hell of a lot of dangerous stuff around after a measly 100,000 years.

    Humans haven't yet made anything last for more than a few thousand years, so why do we arrogantly think that we can reach that target now?

    Date and time
    October 04, 2012, 5:38PM
    • 100,000 years is simply the length of time for the sum radiotoxicity of the spent nuclear fuel (including all radionuclides) to decay to roughly the same level as a typical naturally ocurring uranium orebody. The design philosophy employed in the Finnish system is based on the premise that no engineered barrier can be guaranteed to last much more than a human lifetime & relies on the entirely passive physical isolation provided by the bedrock  (2.7 billion years old) and the chemical stability achieved by emplacement at 500m while considering the coming and going of ice ages and other geological processes at the surface  (Scandinavia was under some 3km of ice 12,000 years ago & can be expected to be so again in the future). The aim is to learn from & copy the ways in which nature achieves such isolation itself - radioactive & chemotoxic orebodies have managed to remain isolated for 10s of millions if not 100s of millions of years in many locations all over the globe (so-called "natural analogues" - see for example: ). Deliberate human intrusion cannot be excluded, but if storage is sufficiently deep & difficult to access, a relatively high level of technological capability and expense is necessary. In the future it may be retrieved if a better management option becomes available. Better to have a completely passive storage system in place such as this, rather than just stockpiling in surface storage facilities for future generations to take care of. What happens if modern society suddenly ceased to exist in a hundred years - who would be there to take care of our radioactive legacy then?

      Date and time
      October 05, 2012, 3:48AM
  • Sam I couldn't resist citing something I had published another life time ago. "David reached over to hold Stephen’s shoulder. He dozed, woke and dozed some more. He embodied a vast cloud where electrons and positrons occasionally met and formed ‘atoms’ larger than the Universe of David’s birth time. ‘10>117 years.’ Stephen held David’s his hand. The Universe was cold, dark and eternal. David was content."Z-shit Days 2002 1929 Edwin Hubble announced that spectral analyse of galaxies showed they are red-shifted, from which he deduced the Universe has been expanding since the ‘the big bang.’ This is about 15 billion years ago. There has been much speculation as to whether the Universe would eventually contract under the force of gravity into a ‘big crunch,’ perhaps in 50 billion years time. Theorists have speculated about the presence of ‘dark matter, ’ which makes up the bulk of the matter in the universe. A crucial question has been how much ‘dark matter’ is there in the Universe. In April 2001, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey gave firm indication that there is too little ‘dark matter’ to break the Universe’s expansion. While the Universe will expand forever, the relentless effects of time will eventually see all energy dissipated and matter decay. The range of estimates on this is between 10>80 and 10<176 years, depending on the stability of protons. Regardless, these are ludicrously large numbers for which we can have no real reference point.

    Date and time
    October 04, 2012, 5:59PM
    • There's always interesting docos about ancient humans. Right now SBS2 has one on Wednesday nights. I always find it interesting how over 200,000 years humans have developed yet things have only changed in the last 10,000. At one stage there was just 600 breeding pairs of humans. All of this has shaped who we are. It is our fundamental basis. Our basic programming code was written at this time

      Date and time
      October 04, 2012, 6:05PM
      • I'm sure the f word will survive. Don't effin go here or you'll be effed.

        We could start a decent legacy now by quitting with overpopulation.

        I don't care, because I'm advocating the right thing and hardly anyone else is and are a bunch of wimps with their head in the sand. I am innocent.

        Date and time
        October 04, 2012, 9:10PM
        • So no kids then?

          Date and time
          October 10, 2012, 5:23PM
      • Carl Sagan's famous quote on the Voyager photo of Earth, 'Pale Blue Dot':

        '...Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.'

        El Rey
        Date and time
        October 04, 2012, 11:41PM

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