Image: One of the cave paintings of Lascaux, a chance discovery that brought
the early human experience to vivid life. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

On Artifacts Future and Past

by PAUL GILSTER on JANUARY 7, 2013

How are you affected by the cave paintings at Lascaux? The paleolithic art in this region of southwestern France dates back perhaps 18,000 years, depicting large animal figures, human forms and abstract symbols. Some believe the paintings even contain astronomical pointers — star charts — but theories on how to interpret them abound, and whatever spin we put on them, we’re confronted by the mystery of evocative imagery reaching out over centuries. Lascaux and other such sites take us beyond civilization and into the realm of deep time, a place where our parochial concerns are dwarfed by this reminder of humanity’s aggregated experience.

Early cave art reaches almost twice as far back as the 10,000 year clock proposed by Danny Hillis and the Long Now Foundation hopes to take us forward. Yet the experience of the two is in some ways similar. Building a clock designed to tell time by the year and century places our short lives in perspective and demands we take a view that encompasses our remote descendants. Long-term thinking, forward or back, is about identifying the forces shaping the human experience and asking what we can do today to influence an outcome we will never live to see.

In some ways, artifacts like the Voyager Golden Record are cousins of the cave paintings, for they collect various statements about who we are and project them into the realm of deep time. It’s equally hard to imagine what far future audience the cave painters might have had in mind, if any, and what audience the Golden Records might one day achieve. But for chance we might never have learned about Lascaux, the paintings of which were discovered by a French teenager in 1940. And what chance is there that some extraterrestrial civilization may one day recover an intact Voyager, long silent but bearing the testimony of the record that identifies its makers?

Read more: On Artifacts Future and Past — Centauri Dreams.

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