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In which John Green considers the historical distance between Rome's Pantheon, the cave paintings at Lascaux, a different community's cave paintings at Chauvet, and the current day. Too often, we think that a hundred years, or a thousand, can tell us the whole story or history or art history. But cave paintings remind us that what we think of as history is a tiny fraction of the human story.

HUGE THANKS to Rosianna for helping with all the images:

Werner Herzog made a beautiful documentary about the Chauvet paintings called Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It's worth checking out for much more info on the paintings at Chauvet and the people who made them:

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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.

So, this is the Pantheon. The world's oldest building still in use, depending on your definition of 'building' and 'use'.

It was finished around 126 CE during the reign of Roman emperor, Hadrian, seen here noseless in his most famous statue. Which, by the way, was most recently discovered to be a forgery. Hadrian's head was put on someone else's body 1700 years after his death. 

Right, so the Pantheon was originally a temple to the Roman Gods, but it became a Christian church in 609 and it is still one. For almost 1900 years, people have been coming to this place for worship. So long that the gods have changed. When the Pantheon was built, there was no English language, Romans didn't eat pizza, because tomato wouldn't come to Italy for another 1500 years. 

If you wanted to get from Rome to Florence, and you were phenomenally wealthy, it would take four days by carriage at a cost of 350 denarii, approximately equal to a year's wages for a laborer. Today, it takes about three hours by car, or three and a half, if you want to avoid the tolls. 

In short, human lives were very different 1900 years ago. And yet...

This is the Lascaux cave in Southwestern France, which was discovered or rediscovered in 1940 by four teenagers and a dog named Robot. The cave is famous for its nearly 2000 prehistoric wall paintings, including extraordinary depictions of animals, some of them now extinct, as well as this famous person with a bird-head. Now, there's a lot we don't know about these paintings at Lascaux. We don't know, for instance, how many generations painted there, but we do know from carbon dating and other dating methods that the paintings are mostly are between fifteen and twenty thousand years old. 

350 kilometers away, a group of cave experts found another cave full of extraordinary paintings in 1996. This one came to be known as the Chauvet cave. And in many ways, these paintings are even more sophisticated than the ones from Lascaux: there's more actions in them, like animals locking horns or drawn so as to intimate motion, and Chauvet paintings are arguably more detailed, but the Chauvet paintings are much older than the Lascaux paintings like much, much older. 

Most of these painting were made between thirty seven and thirty three thousand years ago, although few were created during a second period of activity, thirty one to twenty eight thousand years ago. That means the historical distance between Chauvet and Lascaux is approximately equal to the historical distance between Lascaux and now. And even more remarkably, the paintings in the Chauvet cave were created across thousands of years, meaning that that cave was almost certainly in use by the same community for the longer than the Pantheon has been in use by us. 

We like to think that history moves in a line, from naive art to sophisticated art, from short disease-ridden human lives to long and healthy ones, from poverty to abundance, from ignorance to knowledge. But the idea that history means progress is very new, like almost all of the 250,000 year history of humans looks almost like a sine curve, than an ascending line. 

And whatever progress we made toward justice or equality or shared prosperity is fragile, because it's new. It's easy to forget that because the new is all around us, from broadband internet to Italian tomatoes to even the Pantheon, but all of that occurred in the last 1% of human history, which is maybe a reminder that lot of what we think of as inevitable or natural about human-ness really isn't. 

Inequality of wealth isn't natural, nor is anthropogenic climate change or political polarization. On the other hand, literacy also isn't natural, nor is freedom of speech, nor is it natural for Rome to be three hours from Florence. This condition results from choices we made collectively, every day we're choosing what to value, what to worship, what to paint. And through the haze of history, the humans of the future will know us by the choices that we're making together right now. 

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.