Last month, the world gave a collective sigh of relief when a group of young boys and their football coach were saved, amid great danger, from the deep cave in which they had been stranded for days. Saving the boys was an expensive and dangerous operation, and one diver lost his life in the process.
All of this begs the question of why the boys ventured into the cave in the first place, risking their life and well-being in the process. Apparently, it was considered a sort of initiation rite, and many boys before them have taken the challenge and escaped unscathed.
While it was clearly a very bad idea for the small group of young boys and their coach to go into the cave, people all over the world are attracted to visiting caves, which are universally associated with a wide variety of myths and legends. Since prehistory, caves have been fascinating to human beings. They have provided homes, been sources of safety and of danger, and today they give us some of the most compelling evidence about early human societies that we have. Because the atmosphere deep instead caves is generally stable, artefacts and artworks left in caves can survive for thousands of years. In Lascaux and other caves in Southern Europe, we find artwork, including paintings that are often surprisingly sophisticated from a technical point of view, that tells us a great deal about the priorities of human societies at the time.
They show game animals, people hunting, and people engaging in a range of activities. Intriguingly, the paintings were made so deep inside the caves that they can only be seen by bringing a light in, showing that they were originally made with fire torches. In some caves the relatively small size of handprints left alongside paintings suggests that the artists are likely to have been women, while some cave art may even have been done by Neanderthal people. Quite possibly, early cave paintings may have been associated with initiation rites similar to those apparently engaged in by the young boys in Thailand. Clearly, there’s something about caves that human beings find irresistible.
Everybody loves a good news story, and it was wonderful to see the young boys being brought out of the cave and given the medical care they need. They will all be returned to their families soon, and hopefully the local initiation rite that encouraged them all to go deep into the cave will lose popularity in the area. However, so long as there are caves, and the spirit of curiosity that they seem to attract, human beings will certainly be drawn to explore them, to uncover their secrets, and to challenge themselves mentally and physically in the process.
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