Paleolithic Arts in Northern Spain
  • The Digital Archive Project

    Cave Arts in North Spain
  • Introduction
  • Recent Research
  • Main characteristics
  • Rock Arts in Iberian Peninsula

    Caves in Asturias
  • Introduction
  • Peña de Candamo Cave
  • Lluera Cave
  • Tito Bustillo Cave
  • Buxu Cave
  • Pindal Cave
  • La Loja Cave

    Caves in Cantabria
  • Introduction
  • Chufin Cave
  • Altamira Cave
  • Hornos de la Peña Cave
  • Castillo Cave
  • Chimeneas Cave
  • Pasiega Cave
  • Las Monedas Cave
  • Santian Cave
  • El Pendo Cave
  • La Hasa Cave
  • Covalanas Cave
  • Pondra Cave

    Caves in Basque Country
  • Introduction
  • Venta de la Pena Cave
  • Arenaza Cave
  • Santimamiñe
  • Ekain Cave

  • Paleolithic Cave Arts in Basque Country

    César. González Sainz &
    Roberto Cacho Toca
    Department of Historical Science, University of Cantabria


    The End of the Cantabrian Corridor. Paleolithic Art assemblages in the Basque Country.

    1. The coast of the Basque Country, at the eastern end of the Cantabrian region, had certain special characteristics during the Upper Paleolithic (c. 38,000 - 11,000 BP),
    which need to be described, but it must be understood that they are still within the overall geographical, ecological and cultural unity shown throughout this natural corridor in the north of the Iberian Peninsula: the Cantabrian region, between the high mountains and the sea. One peculiarity is that the geological structure and the lithology of the Basque Country is somewhat different.

    In contrast with the western part of the Cantabrian region, in the Basque Country the predominant rocks are Mesozoic, with younger and softer limestone types. After the last major uplift of landmasses in the Tertiary period, the result was a very high-energy relief, divided and disarticulated. The landscape is even more broken on the coast, where the coastal plains are much narrower than in the center and west of the Cantabrian, and this is particularly true in Guipúzcoa, the province in the east of the Basque Country.

    These differences in relief are linked with variations in the relative frequency of some of the ungulate species which were fundamental for Paleolithic subsistence. Consequently, caprids, both chamois and ibex, were hunted and consumed more often in the Basque Country sites. Especially in Guipúzcoa we find Upper Paleolithic habitats with high frequencies of caprid hunting very near to the present day coast line, such as Cueva de Ermittia and certain layers in Cueva de Ekain. They are of course also found in inland areas, in the caves of Erralla or Aitzbitarte, or Silibranka and Bolinkoba in the province of Vizcaya. In contrast, in the western part of the Cantabrian region high frequencies of ibex and chamois are only found in sites in the steep, rocky valleys of the interior, whereas red deer, horse and bovines are more important in sites in the coastal strip, with a more open, undulating landscape. This difference in the fauna documented in habitation sites is reflected to a certain extent, depending on the existence of other factors, in the themes depicted in mobiliary and cave art.

    In the same way, lithological differences along the Cantabrian corridor are also the cause for variations in the prehistoric lithic assemblages. Flint is most common in the east, where it is associated with Cretaceous limestone, in comparison with the quartzite linked to the Paleozoic rocks in the west. This allowed a greater choice in the quality of the raw material, and higher frequencies of blade tools in the lithic assemblages of all the Upper Paleolithic periods in the Basque Country. Indirectly, this explains the higher frequencies of those tools especially associated with blades, such as burins, truncated pieces or straight backed points.

    The geographical location of the Basque Country, situated between the rest of the Cantabrian region, the Dordogne in France, and the northern Pyrenees, all of which were densely populated, explains further differences it had, of a purely stylistic nature, with other areas in the Cantabrian. These are seen in the manufacture and decoration of certain tools, such as the antler harpoons of between 14,000 and 11,500 BP, or the hunting points with flat retouch produced between 21,000 and 17,000 BP, in the themes depicted in parietal art, or in certain conventions of decoration, to be described later. This same situation of the Basque Country, the ante-chamber of the Cantabrian region, also explains the greater presence of some of the animal species that were hunted and which correspond to a colder, drier, continental climate, as these penetrated into the peninsula from Europe at certain times of the year during long periods of the Upper Pleistocene. For example, reindeer, which in general were rarely hunted in most of the Cantabrian region, are found rather more often in the Basque Country, during the Magdalenian, especially between 14,000 and 11,800 BP. In the same way, the only known example of saiga antelope in the Iberian Peninsula was recovered in the cave of Abauntz, in Navarra, on the natural route from the western Pyrenees to the Ebro Valley.

    2. The Basque Country has a quite small number of caves with Upper Paleolithic cave art, and just seven sites are known. The density of decorated caves is therefore much lower than in Cantabria, or in the center and east of Asturias.

    However, the proportion of Upper Paleolithic habitation caves seems to be similar to that in the other parts of the Cantabrian region, or at least there is not such an obvious difference as there is in the number of caves with art. Furthermore, the archaeological deposits in the Basque Country have given important collections of mobiliary art, in caves like Bolinkoba, Santimamiñe, Lumentxa, Ekain, Urtiaga or Aitzbitarte IV, which seem similar to the ones from central and western parts of the region. Consequently, it is not possible to explain this lower density of parietal decoration as the result of any specific behavior in symbolic matters in this area, different not only from the rest of the Cantabrian region, but also from the areas of France to the north of the Pyrenees. Indeed, such a possibility is difficult to imagine in the open, mobile, societies of hunters. It appears, therefore, that the difference is due to a problem in the exploration of cave art, which has probably been less intense here, and to the lack of teams with the tradition, or certain specific skill, at locating engravings and remains of paint which may be very difficult to see.

    3. Research. The above comments are based on our viewpoint about partially different research traditions, even within the same Cantabrian region.

    The discovery of Paleolithic art received a great impetus in the center of the region at the start of the 20th Century. In this way, cave art caught the public's imagination and acquired an important level of prestige. Because of this, since the 1940s and 50s, "Archaeology" and "Speleology" have been strongly linked, and developed together by youth groups of all kinds. This situation, supported scientifically by J. Carballo, an influential prehistorian in Santander, has caused important problems, but has had the advantage of the discovery of a large number of caves with art. In the Basque Country, on the other hand, archaeological prospecting has been linked much less with speleology, and more with mountaineering. As a result, there is greater tradition of exploring mountain areas, especially in search of megalithic monuments, or cave entrances and surface deposits, but it has been less customary to prospect inside the caves.

    This is also related with the reigning idea of Prehistory as a way of seeking and documenting the origins of Basque traditional culture, which was a perspective led by J. M. de Barandiaran, the most important and influential Basque researcher in ethnography and archaeology until about twenty years ago. This search for connections found certain support in physical anthropology and above all studying the material culture of the builders of the megaliths and later societies, which were the aspects that received most effort in prospecting. The interior of Paleolithic caves were studied less, although J. M. Barandiaran suggested on several occasions that there was no break between the artistic-religious paintings of Paleolithic groups in SW Europe and the images of traditional Basque mythology, which he wanted to convert into the heir of Upper Paleolithic society. It is interesting to compare how these kinds of reasons explain how in the center of the Cantabrian region, in Cantabria, very few megalithic monuments were discovered until the 1980s, seventy years behind its neighboring communities of Asturias and the Basque Country, and then in certain cases by amateur archaeologists who thought they had discovered the homes of the ancient Cantabrians.

    Our impression is that the differences in the orientation of research, and in the interest of the youth groups and amateur prospectors, is the main reason for the low number of cave art sites that have been discovered in the Basque Country. The most spectacular and noticeable sites seem to have been located, above all in Guipúzcoa, where the only two known caves are of an exceptional quality In contrast, the smaller caves, with just a few, faded paintings, or engravings, or dots, have not been located yet, but we hope they may start to appear in the next few years.

    Research in cave art has therefore been somewhat less intense than in the other parts of the Cantabrian region, where it began earlier. The work carried out in the first decades in the center of the region included the exterior group of engravings at Venta de La Perra, situated on the western boundary of the Basque Country, and the cave was in the 1911 publication. In the same way, the only known cave with art in Navarra, Cueva de Alkerdi, was published in the early 1920s by N. Casteret, a French explorer of caves. But by this time, local research had an important team working in the field, and they had made their first major discovery, Cueva de Santimamiñe, whose parietal art was published by T. Aranzadi, J. M. Barandiaran and E. Eguren in 1925.

    After the Spanish Civil War, and the difficult post-war period, archaeological research began to recover in the 1960s. At that time, the two caves in Guipúzcoa were discovered and studied, Cueva de Altxerri and Ekain. They were published by J. M. Barandiaran, in one case jointly with J. Altuna, following the methodological and interpretive line of H. Breuil. It was precisely Don José Miguel de Barandiaran's students, J. M. Apellániz and J. Altuna, who brought out fuller, more modern studies of these caves in the 1970s. In their publications they gave special attention to their own interests: respectively, analysis of form and author, and comparison between the species depicted and Pleistocene fauna. Another of his students, I. Barandiaran, published in the early 1970s a new study of Alkerdi, and above all an important catalogue and evaluation of Paleolithic mobiliary art in the whole of the Cantabrian region. As happened in the rest of the region, and in this decade, these studies mentioned above referred to Leroi-Gourhan's proposals almost exclusively as regards to chronology, comparing it with Breuil's scheme, which was not abandoned altogether.

    In the last twenty years, research in cave art appears to have slowed down, at least in comparison with several splendid studies on habitats and material culture of the Paleolithic groups. The most important publications have been the analysis of variation in forms and methods of determining the author developed by J. M. Apellániz, and the studies of mobiliary art, and synthesis of Paleolithic art in the Basque Country, by I. Barandiaran.

    4. Artistic centers. All the Paleolithic cave art known in the Basque Country and Navarra is located in caves on the coastal side of the mountain chains. Nevertheless, a magnificent collection of Magdalenian mobiliary art was found in Cueva de Abauntz, in Navarra, in a tributary valley of the River Ebro.

    Thus it is not impossible that cave art could be found in the southern part of the Basque Country, corresponding to the Ebro Valley, as in fact happens in surrounding areas, either in Burgos (Cueva de Penches and Ojo Guareña) or in Huesca (Cueva de la Fuente del Trucho).

    The few known caves are distributed along the coastal flank of the mountain chain, without forming the clusters we have seen in the center and west of the region. Only the cave in the west, Venta de la Perra, in the gorge of the River Carranza, is by another five caves with art, all together in the narrowest part of the natural gap, of enormous strategic value. These are the caves of Sotarriza, El Morro, Pondra, Arco A and Arco B-C, all across the provincial boundary in Cantabria. Further west, we find Cueva de Arenaza, with an important group of figures, painted with red dots. The most spectacular site in Vizcaya, because of the large number of black paintings and engravings it contains, is without doubt Cueva de Santimamiñe, on the Guernica Estuary. It is apparently a more or less synchronic group of paintings, of Magdalenian age. Also in Vizcaya, we have groups of depictions rather more doubtfully of Paleolithic chronology in Cueva de Goikolau, near the coast in the east of the province, and Cueva de Atxuri further inland. The latter cave, which has the painting of the belly and limbs of an animal in red, also had, like Goikolau, a habitation deposit with layers of Upper Paleolithic and later ages.

    As mentioned above, only two caves are known in Guipúzcoa: Cueva de Ekain and Cueva de Altxerri, which are zealously and perfectly conserved by the members of the Aranzadi Science Society at San Sebastián. The former, a Magdalenian site, has bichrome and polychrome paintings of horses, some of which are of exceptionally high artistic quality. These animals are accompanied by a few bison, deer, goats, and other less common species in cave art like fish and bears.

    Altxerri is located in the lower valley of the River Oria, very near the present coastline. It is, like Ekain, one of the best groups of cave art in the Cantabrian region, and together with Santimamiñe, Covaciella and Cueva de Urdiales, one of the main examples of the "Pyrenean" style, and thematic structure, in the region. It is worthy of a fuller description. The cave has over ninety animal figures, mostly engravings done with various techniques, which are occasionally quite complex and include different ways of scraping clay surfaces. Black paint was used in association with some of the engravings, and other times independently, in the central and most visible panels in the cave. An upper gallery of quite difficult access has a panel with remains of several red figures, principally a large bison. Bison is the most common animal represented in the cave, but there other animals such as reindeer, red deer, ibex, horse and auroch. But, even more surprising than the beauty of some of these figures, is the appearance of such unusual themes as fish, including two examples of flat-fish, hare, fox, a bird, an anthropomorph, and an imaginary animal. It has also been proposed, although with doubts that are difficult to resolve, that the figures also include two saiga antelopes and a glutton.

    The paintings and engravings in Altxerri are quite homogeneous, and their naturalistic style, their technique and the conventions used correspond to Style IV, in the Middle or Late Magdalenian. The cave is rather difficult to explore, and the panels could easily be damaged by non-qualified visitors.

    Finally, in the Atlantic zone of the province of Navarra, we find Cueva de Alkerdi, in Urdax, which is a kind of connection between the Cantabrian region and the Pyrenees. Alkerdi is a very small cave, situated next to the site of Berroberr’a, which has an important habitation deposit with several Magdalenian strata, as well as Azilian and more modern layers. It has a small group of engravings, including the rear-quarters of a horse, a bison, a stag, and the remains of other unidentified motifs. A second panel has the profile of a horse's head, and another head which may represent a wolf. All these figures are attributed to the phases of Magdalenian III-IV.

    5. To summarize some of the points mentioned above, the eastern part of the Cantabrian region has a lower density of caves with art, which do not form clusters of sites. The lower density may be partly due to the prospecting carried out, which has been focused on the most spectacular and visible assemblages.

    The caves known to date are more or less synchronic internally, and none of them contain large accumulations of figures produced in different moments of the Upper Paleolithic. These major centers, occupied repeatedly and in different periods, are relatively common in the western half of the region, in caves like La Peña de Candamo, Tito Bustillo, Llon’n, Altamira, Pasiega, Castillo and La Garma, but none have been found east of the Miera Valley.

    Chronologically speaking, nearly all the caves can be attributed to quite late phases, in the Magdalenian. The only exceptions, the oldest caves, are those in the west of the Basque Country: Venta de la Perra and Arenaza. The daylight engravings in the first cave are usually situated in the Gravettian or early Solutrean periods, i.e. between 27,000 and 21,000 BP. Cueva de Arenaza corresponds to a slightly later time, and clearly belongs within Leroi-Gourhan's Style III, together with the other caves in the center of the Cantabrian region where red dotted lines are common, often to paint hinds or other animals, which are frequently arranged in pairs. This group of caves is formed basically by Pasiega A and C, Pendo, Garma, Covalanas and Haza, Arco A, Arco B-C and Pondra. Other, more doubtful caves of this kind are Llon’n and Trescalabres, Meaza, Castillo and Salitre.

    The Magdalenian period (16,500 to 11,500 BP), and Leroi-Gourhan's Style IV, are much better represented in the Basque Country. The caves of Alkerdi, Santimamiñe, Ekain and Altxerri certainly correspond to this period, as their style and technique show. Nevertheless, it could be quite complicated to date each of these caves with greater precision, based on the style of their figures or the iconographic composition.

    Because of their geographical position, in the middle of the densely populated areas of SW France, and the center and west of the Cantabrian region, the caves of the Basque Country show fewer of the stylistic characters which are considered more typically "Cantabrian". Furthermore, as the cordillera is less high here, there was greater contact between the coastal strip and the interior of the peninsula, such as the Ebro Valley. Because of this, the ̉CantabrianÓ characteristics became more diffuse. For example, conventionalized signs are much rarer here, in comparison with their abundance in the rest of the region, where the different kinds of quadrilateral and divided oval signs are especially characteristic. In the same way, the thematic distribution of animals is quite peculiar, at least in the case of the complementary animals. Except in Arenaza, hinds and even stags are quite rare, compared with other parts of the Cantabrian region. Basque caves are polarized much more in the depiction of bison and horses, accompanied by ibex, and have higher frequencies of unusual species such as reindeer, fish, bears and foxes. This characteristic is partly the result of their more recent chronology, in the Magdalenian period, when these animals tend to become more common in all regions.

    In the same way, the caves of the Basque Country have certain Magdalenian conventions of representation, specific to areas of the western Pyrenees and the east of the Cantabrian region. One example is the depiction of horses with a prominent, large rump (hypertrophy). This is very clear in a number of horses in Ekain, and even in the horse occupying the center of the main composition in Santimamiñe. Further to the east, this convention is known in caves to the north of the Pyrenees, like Sinhikole and Etxeberri, and also in some of the horses in Niaux, in the region of Ariege. In fact, Ekain and Sinhikole (112km away in a straight line) show clear parallels in the composition and style of the horses and even in the techniques employed. This proves that, not only the herds of reindeer moved from region to region, but also ideas and images traveled with the hunters who followed them. In contrast, horses of Magdalenian age in the center and west of the Cantabrian, as in the caves of Cullalvera, Monedas, Castillo, Pasiega, Tito Bustillo and Candamo, do not have this convention. There is just one example in the Lower Passage in La Garma, in the valley of the River Miera. At the moment, the latter cave marks the western boundary of this way of painting horses, which is so characteristic of the Basque Country. Furthermore, it is also the eastern boundary of a theme and technique, namely, the heads of hinds with striated bands in their chin and chest, which is so characteristic of Magdalenian sites in the center and west of the Cantabrian region, but which is unknown further east and in the Basque Country.

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