A Boy and His Wolf: Sexist Themes in Cave of Forgotten Dreams

“An 8 year old boy’s footprint is found next to those of a wolf. Was the wolf stalking the boy, were they walking as friends? Or were they walking thousands of years apart? We just don’t know…”

A boy and his dog, running through our collective imagination 30,000 years ago. Across the abyss of millennia, the familiar image gives us something to connect with. In many reviews of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, this passage is quoted, paraphrased, discussed. People have latched onto it.

But how does Werner Herzog know that the creator of the ancient footprint was a boy? Did cave girls have no feet? Physical anthropologists can get some pretty amazing information out of bones, but I don’t believe they can tell the sex of a child based on a footprint.

In an interview on NPR, he acknowledges in passing that the age and sex of the child who made the footprint are speculation, but goes on to the image anyway:

Mr. HERZOG: Yes, you just don’t do this. And there’s a footprint of a child, maybe eight-year-old, this very mysterious. We couldn’t film it. We were not allowed, because it was deep in the recess of the cave.

The mysterious thing is that next to this footprint, probably a boy, probably around eight years old, parallel to it runs the footprint of a wolf. And I was very, very puzzled: Did the wolf stalk the boy? Or did they walk together as friends? Or did the wolf leave its footprints 5,000 years later? It’s stunning. The lapse of time is completely and utterly stunning.”

The scene catches on, is repeated, perpetuated, re-imagined. Alluring, familiar and false. Werner Herzog is being playful by imagining the boy and the wolf may have run together, and most reviewers are aware of that. But based on the way reviewers repeat the sex of of the ancient child’s footprint, they don’t question that part of the fancy.

Why does this matter?

It matters because art creates reality. It matters because of the common and commonly believed sexist arguments that cite what “cavemen” did as the template for human behaviors. That argument has its problems, but speculations about “cavemen” in a documentary that project contemporary prejudices onto them only feed the cycle of sexism. Making specious sexist speculations about ancient people that reinforce contemporary sexist notions also harms our possibility of understanding what those ancient people were actually up to.

It matters because Werner Herzog is a talented director who normally avoids the obvious in his films. When I saw The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans I was struck by multiple scenes where I expected an obvious image based on movie conventions and every time, Herzog did something new, often something brilliant. In Cave, he makes it a point to convey the distance of time, the alienness of the ancient human society to ours, the impossibility of ever truly understanding them. He tries to avoid the just-so-stories of many documentaries about ancient times.

And then he gets stuck in unquestioned sexist prejudices, uses “man” in his narration to mean human, refers to a statue whose gender is in dispute as a man, and makes up stories about a boy and his wolf.

It’s a disappointing failure of imagination from Herzog, who is an extraordinarily creative director.

It lessens our understanding rather than broadening it. Part of understanding remotely ancient humans is trying to avoid projecting modern prejudices onto them, to imagine just how very different a conception of reality they might have had than we do, how extremely different their lives may have been. That kind of intellectual work is difficult. Projecting modern sexist ideas doesn’t aid our understanding.

At the end of the movie, Herzog, gets weirder with an epilogue featuring albino crocodiles living in waters heated by the industrial processes of a nearby nuclear reactor. Here he makes a parallel between the alienness of the albino crocodiles, if they were trying to understand humans, to us, modern humans trying to understand prehistoric people. That is closer to the mark.