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
  • Chufín 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 Perra Cave
  • Arenaza Cave
  • Santimamiñe Cave
  • Ekain Cave

  • Introduction to Cave Art in
    the Iberian Peninsula

    César. González Sainz
    Prof. of the University of Cantabria

    1. Introduction.
    During the last stages of the Würm glaciation, the groups of hunters living in Europe developed the first artistic cycle, which still surprises us today with the great esthetic value of many of the paintings, or their careful execution with techniques that are, nonetheless, very simple. We are equally struck by the unity of style over vast geographical areas, and its continuity during such a long period of time. Between approximately 35,000 and 11,000 years before the present, the continent saw the growth of this first example of figurative graphic expression, with its two variants: cave or rock art, on fixed surfaces (cave walls, floors and roofs, or open-air rock outcrops such as those recently located in the Iberian Peninsula), and a mobiliary art on portable objects (perforated staffs, harpoons, pendants ... and also on stone or bone plaques, statuettes etc).

    Between these two variants, small differences can be detected in the distribution of the motifs represented, the techniques used, and in the composition of the figures and their thematic associations. These are due to the different conditions, such as size or hardness, of the surfaces to be decorated, and to the presumably different functions of the art. Their geographical distribution is partly different too. Whereas decorated objects are found in almost all of Europe, cave art is located essentially in the southwest of the continent. This means it is limited, apart from isolated exceptions, to the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, central and southern France, and to a lesser extent, Italy.

    The Europe where this first art appeared and developed was very different to present day Europe; colder and inhospitable, wild and empty. Large glaciers had formed in mountainous areas, while a great ice sheet covered the north of Europe. Thus the northern limits of the inhabitable continent were in the center of what is now Great Britain and the north of Germany. At the same time, the water locked in this great mass of ice resulted in sea level dropping as much as 120m below the present level in the coldest period, which was from about 20,000 to 18,000 BP. This caused a regression in the coastline, of varying amount depending on the location, and the consequent enlargement in the territory available to the human groups and the herds of wild animals. Where the present day underwater continental platform is wide and flat, there was a greater increase in the territory (so Great Britain was joined to the continent). On the other hand, the regression was much smaller where there is no platform, such as in the Straits of Gibraltar, between the European and African continents.

    The ecosystems known in Upper Pleistocene Europe varied greatly, but they were always colder and more severe than nowadays. The differences among them depended, as today, on their continentality or proximity to the sea, the latitude, or altitude and soil types, and other factors. In southwestern Europe, where art developed, the differences among the most characteristic regions (Dordogne and the French Pyrenees, the Cantabrian Region, the Duero Valley, and in the extreme south, the coast and hills of Andalucia) were equally important. Despite this, everywhere the landscape was more open and barer of vegetation than we have known in historical times. There were fewer trees, and a much larger proportion of grasslands. The forests began to spread when the climate improved (first about 13,500 BP, and then irreversibly from 10,200 BP onwards). In those open spaces a great variety of wild animals roamed, again with significant differences between the colder periods and places, and warmer moments or more southern and temperate zones. In the former, the more characteristic faunal type, although not the only one, consisted of the great herds of gregarious ungulates (reindeer, horse, bison... and saiga antelope in drier periods), together with mammoths, and carnivores such as the polar fox or wolf. In the opposite conditions, smaller groups of ungulates better adapted to a more forested vegetation (red deer, chamois, and roe deer or wild boar in temperate moments), aurochs on flatland, and ibex on steep, rocky slopes. We can appreciate this environmental gradient from North to South in the animals represented in the Paleolithic cave art of the Iberian Peninsula, as significant differences exist between the faunal compositions in the Cantabrian Region, the central mesetas, and Andalucia.

    Paleolithic art is therefore due to groups of hunters who lived in territories generally more open and colder than exist nowadays, where they exploited natural food resources by hunting, fishing, and gathering plants and fruit. As the variety, quantity and location of these resources changed with each season, and as they became slowly exhausted in any one place, it was necessary for the population to move relatively frequently, taking with them a few objects, as well as their ideas and knowledge. This enabled long-range interaction, which fixed tastes and a graphic style with many elements in common all across Europe, in a time when no stable paths or roads existed, only the migratory routes of the herds of ungulates. And the only way of transmitting images was on pendants and other light objects which were no burden for the journey, and, of course, in the artist's retina and mind.

    The appearance of figurative art in Europe coincides with that of Homo sapiens sapiens, that is, with our direct ancestors. These substituted Neanderthal man, who had occupied western Europe alone from at least 150,000 to 40/30,000 BP. The processes of anthropological replacement must have been quite complex and varied, and given the limitations of archaeological method, are still difficult to precise (which has caused a fecund literary sub-genre). But the development of figurative art is not only the consequence of the greater intellectual capacity of our species, but also of more complex and flexible forms of organization, which required systems of social cohesion, and of collection and exchange of information, which were rather more sophisticated than what had existed until then. Cave art, and the ceremonies to which its production may have been linked, probably formed part of that baggage of tools of intragroupal cohesion, or of the fixation and transmission of information. This does not exclude, among other things, its role as a formula of artistic expression and of personal or collective affirmation. Precisely because it was not reduced to a tool of cohesion or transmission of information, the geographical distribution of cave art, which spread like a film of oil across southwest Europe, affected areas with very different environmental conditions, and was not limited to those with cold, open conditions. The study of the cave art in the Iberian Peninsula shows this clearly, as will be seen.

    It should also be taken into account that when we speak of Paleolithic art, we are referring to the part that can be documented archaeologically, and not to all that could have existed. We know nothing of other forms of expression such as tattoos or body paint, dancing, singing, or graphic art on short-lived organic surfaces, such as animal skins or wood. In any case, there must have been representations presumably linked to activities such as human burials, documented already among the Neanderthals. If we could know more about these other forms of artistic expression, and their similarities and differences with rock and mobiliary art, it would make it easier to understand the role played by art in Paleolithic societies.

    Figurative art appears and develops, then, within a group of novelties protagonized by human groups in the Upper Paleolithic. These novelties are especially clear in the field of technology (new and more carefully selected raw materials and ways of working, new technical supports, more diverse tool assemblages, and development of tools on bone and antler), but they also affected the subsistence economy, and important processes of intensification are observed in many regions. The changes, without doubt, also implied more versatile and complex social structures, which would have shown regional differences, but which at the same time extended over larger areas of territory. In this context of novelties and accelerated cultural change (at least compared with the static situation of the long age of the Neanderthals), appears this new ability to create and use graphic symbols, specific to our species and, perhaps, one of its defining characteristics.

    This first great artistic cycle rapidly melted away in the last moments of the glaciation, as the milder environmental conditions allowed new territories to be colonized in the north of the continent, or in higher altitudes within the classic regions. At the same time as the flora and fauna was transformed in many areas, including the spread of the forests and the extinction of the typically Pleistocene mammals, like mammoth, reindeer, saiga or bison, the human groups tended to develop cultural systems that were more specific to each region, better adapted to highly variable local conditions. These systems were more intensive economically, directed more at the exploitation of less mobile and more predictable resources, increasing the gathering of vegetables, fruits and molluscs, and developing true fishing techniques in rivers and estuaries, and then in the open sea, as well as hunting birds and smaller mammals. This allowed the population to rise significantly in many regions, and each human group now tended to settle in a territory. Marriage systems and networks of interaction between groups were generally more closed geographically, and decorative styles were less unified than in the Upper Paleolithic, and frequently of a very different kind, with a greater proportion of abstract representations. In the Cantabrian region, occupying the northern rim of the Iberian Peninsula, only mobiliary art is found after 11,500 BP, and this is much less common than in the Magdalenian period, and reduced to abstract compositions usually of dots and lines. These non-figurative motifs from the Azilian period (c. 11,500 to 9,000 BP), engraved on spatulas and pendants or painted on stone cobbles, do however have extraregional connections, until the expansion of the forests and regionalization were noticeably accelerated after about 10,000 BP.

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