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

  • Paleolithic rock art in the Iberian Peninsula.

    César. González Sainz
    Prof. of the University of Cantabria

    Paleolithic rock art in the Iberian Peninsula.
    The role of the Iberian Peninsula in the context of European Paleolithic art has changed decisively in the last few years. Until recently, peninsular rock art was limited to the Cantabrian region, which was a kind of maritime, western appendix to the French areas implicitly considered as central. A few isolated sites in Andalucia and the Mesetas were somewhat awkward to situate within the regions of European art. Nowadays we know cave art sites in almost the whole Peninsula, except in Galicia in the extreme northwest. Together with the great density of discoveries in the Cantabrian region, other prominent artistic groups are known in: the Mesetas and the Atlantic coast; the Andalucian area, with important prolongations to Murcia and the south of Levante, or to the west, and Extremadura and Alentejo. These regions now have important research projects being carried out by Spanish and Portuguese universities.

    This decisive incorporation of the central and southern areas of the Peninsula is modifying our knowledge of Paleolithic rock art in more ways than just the quantitative aspects or the geographical distribution. Among these new discoveries, the open-air assemblages in the Duero Valley and a few other places have acquired a special scientific relevance. They alter and enrich the traditional identification of Paleolithic rock art as the art of the dark and mysterious underground world.

    The number of Paleolithic caves and open-air sites in the Peninsula is now over 150. Of these, some 103 caves and rockshelters are in the Cantabrian region, 16 sites are in the Duero Valley (11 belonging to the River C™a network in Portugal), the Ebro Valley has 5 or 6 caves, there are 8 in the southern Meseta and Alentejo, 7 in the south of Levante, and about 17 in Andalucia.

    These densities vary greatly due to several factors. One of these is the different exploration or tradition of this type of study in each region, and another is the different degree of conservation of the art. This too varies regionally, as in areas with many well-preserved caves, such as the Cantabrian, the importance of freeze-thaw weathering has made it difficult to conserve any possible open-air sites. But in areas which are not too high in Portugal or the northern Meseta, the greater dryness and the type of rock has enabled the survival of this kind of site. Furthermore, the density of human occupation during the Upper Paleolithic may have varied in different regions, together with the quantity, variety and continuity throughout the year of usable natural food resources.

    The rock art of the Peninsula, and not only of the Cantabrian region, is clearly related with that of neighboring European areas. In the Peninsula, the art affected a series of regions of very different conditions of habitat and environment, and presumably of different organization of the subsistence economy during the Upper Paleolithic. Yet the art appears to extend through all the regions in a quite homogeneous way in general aspects. It does, nevertheless, show important differences in the structure of themes (animals and signs), and technique, among other aspects. The comparative analysis of these regional artistic groups, and of the environmental and ecological conditions of each area, is one of the fields for future research. It will equally be highly interesting, in coming years, to analyze the open-air sites spatially, as well as their relationship with the surrounding territory, and finally make comparisons between this kind of site and the caves in such classic aspects as themes, composition and distribution of depictions.

    1. The Cantabrian Region. This forms a narrow West-East corridor across the north of the Iberian Peninsula, located between the Cantabrian Cordillera and the Basque Mountains to the south and the Bay of Biscay to the north. It is only a small region, about 400km long and 40km wide, connected at its eastern end with the regions of the south-west of France. It is known that there existed intense interaction with this part of France during the Upper Paleolithic, whereas the routes to the south were often blocked by the development of glaciers on the mountains of the cordillera, especially in the western and central sectors. At present, the Cantabrian region is divided into several administrative units, which are from west to east: Asturias, Cantabria, Basque Country, and northern Navarra.

    This region had a quite large population during the Upper Paleolithic due to its relatively mild climate, and the abundance of hunting, fishing, seafood and plant resources. These were available to groups of hunter-gatherers in varied ecological environments, all located within close range. For those reasons, and the intense karstification of the area, it is easy to appreciate the abundance of well-preserved archaeological deposits, and the examples of mobiliary and rock art, within the caves. On the other hand, it is difficult to locate Paleolithic archaeological sites in the open air.

    After more than a century of research, about a hundred caves with art are known, distributed in an irregular pattern along the corridor. At the same time, decorated objects have been found in nearly all the excavations of Upper Paleolithic habitation sites, of which those with greatest stratigraphic interest are the Abrigo de La Vi–a, Cueto de la Mina and La Riera, El Castillo, Mor’n, Rasca–o, Santimami–e and the caves of Aitzbitarte. In these and many other deposits, it has been possible to study the development of the different phases of the Upper Paleolithic, between about 38,000 and 11,500 BP.

    The distribution of caves with art is almost the same as the places of habitation. These are caves on the coastal strip, or more rarely, in the interior valleys, always at a low altitude. Nearly all the sites are below 200m above present sea level, and only exceptionally are they found as high as 600m. Human occupation of sites at higher altitudes are only known after 12,000 BP. Some of these caves were major centers, occupied repeatedly during the Upper Paleolithic, with many figures of different style and technique. At the other end of the spectrum, there are also caves with just one or two figures. All sites are, however, important to obtain a full view of the role played by art and the rituals linked to its production in the life of the hunters.

    Within the unity displayed by Paleolithic art across most of Europe, the Cantabrian region does have some distinctive features. One of these is the relatively peculiar distribution of animals, with many images of the most common ungulates here, such as red deer, and above all the females or hinds, as well as horses, goats, aurochs and bison, and fewer reindeer, mammoths and other cold climate species, although these are present in many sites. The representation of many more hinds than stags, while it may describe the reality perceived by the Paleolithic hunters because of the organization of these animals during much of the year, seems to be a purely stylistic feature. This is because it is different from the proportion of male and female red deer known in other regions nearest to the Cantabrian, like the Spanish Meseta, the Pyrenees, and the French Dordogne. Similarly, the Cantabrian region has a series of "signs" which are specific to the region, especially in the central and western zones. These abstract images appear with very similar forms in different caves, especially the quadrangular and oval signs, the quadrilaterals with a pointed protuberance midway along one side, and the "Cantabrian" claviforms.

    Regarding the techniques used, we find similar types to those in other regions, with small peculiarities. There are no sculptures in low or medium relief either in stone as in Aquitaine, or in clay as in the Pyrenees. Neither was extensive use made of the chipping technique found in the open-air sites of the northern Meseta. In contrast, some techniques such as the red dotted lines, or bands of striated engraving, become very important in the region in certain periods. As will be seen, in successive stages of the Upper Paleolithic, the characteristic art was: first the deep engravings in the daylight zone of caves (Abrigo de la Vi–a, La Lluera and Chuf’n); the groups of red outline or dotted line figures of Solutrean age (ie 21,000 to 16,500 BP) found in caves like Llon’n, La Pasiega, Covalanas, Arco and Arenaza. These are often associated with quadrangular abstract signs, frequently subdivided internally, or with lines of dots, found therefore in the same sites and also in Chimeneas and El Castillo. Later came the great variety of technical and expressive devices used in the Magdalenian period (about 16,500 to 11,500 BP) generally aimed at reflecting reality more faithfully. These may be black paintings, as in Candamo, Cullalvera, Monedas or Santimami–e, or in red, especially the abstract signs of the claviform type, and also engravings of different kinds, as in Tito Bustillo, Llon’n, Hornos de la Pe–a and Altxerri. Some of the most characteristic engravings have striated areas inside the animals, which are most commonly hind's heads. This period also sees the combination of different technical procedures in the bichromes and polychromes of Tito Bustillo, Altamira, Pasiega, Castillo and Ekain.

    During the early times of cave art research, the excessive link made between the art and the greater intellectual capacity of Homo sapiens sapiens led to a chronological ordering which attributed a large number of the figures to the first period of the Upper Paleolithic, the Aurignacian (c. 33,000 to 27,000 BP). Nowadays, figurative art in its versions of mobiliary and cave art, is believed to have appeared much more slowly, growing a little more quickly after the Gravettian. As will be seen, an important increase in the quantity of cave art took place during the Solutrean (21,000-16,500 BP), and even more during the early Magdalenian (16,500-14,000 BP), moments when the region acquired a personality of its own. During the Magdalenian, Cantabrian art reached the highest levels of realism and formal virtuosity, while in its later phase, from 14,000 to 11,500, it is possible to see a greater interaction in style and themes with neighboring areas, especially with the French Pyrenees. As is to be seen, it was also during the Magdalenian, especially in its middle and late stages when the production of decorated bone and antler objects, and stone plaquettes, increased spectacularly.

    2. Rock Art in the Mesetas and Portugal. The large drainage basins of the Duero and Tajo Rivers hold a number of Upper Paleolithic rock art sites, many of which have been found in recent years. But our knowledge of the Paleolithic population is, in most of this area, limited to these examples of art. Few Upper Paleolithic habitation sites remain in the caves of the Meseta, or if they exist, they still have not been found. Only in Portugal, especially in regions like Estremadura, to the north of the Tajo, have sites with quite important stratigraphic sequences been dug, as in the cave of Caldeirao. So in this area the industrial and economic development of the Upper Paleolithic is coming to be better known, from the Aurignacian to the Magdalenian.

    The caves with art are situated in the mountainous edges of both sub-mesetas, especially at the foot of the Central and Iberian Systems of mountains, or at lower altitude in the Portuguese hills, under the influence of the Atlantic. The open-air sites, so characteristic of this region, are located on outcrops of schist, and are located in more open or flatter areas, in many cases on the banks of the rivers themselves.

    In the Duero Valley the most important sites are Cueva Mayor de Atapuerca in the North, near the passes to the Ebro Valley, and especially Cueva de la Griega in the northern slopes of the Central System, which has an exceptional group of engravings of horses, deer and signs, represented with conventions of pre-Magdalenian age. As well as these caves, an important number of open-air sites have been discovered in the last few decades. The style and chronology of these is doubtlessly Paleolithic. The figures in these assemblages were produced on rocky outcrops of schist with a characteristic technique of pecking and chipping, or with continuous fine engravings, such as are found on many cave walls, usually for the smaller drawings. These are the sites of Domingo Garc’a and Siega Verde in the northern Spanish Meseta, Mazouco and the impressive network of sites in the valley of the C™a River, a tributary of the Duero, in Portugal. This valley now has a dozen sites with rock art, especially Canada do Inferno, Penascosa, Ribeira de Piscos, Quinta de Barca; and an open-air habitation site has been dug at Cardina I, near Salto do Boi, with remains of camps, above all during the late Gravettian.

    Most of these open-air sites are still being studied, but they are notable for the great numbers of aurochs, horses and stags, and occasionally caprids and other animals. A few characteristic abstract signs have been identified too, at least at Siega Verde. Regarding the forms of expression used, some interesting peculiarities include the association of several heads with one body, to give the idea of movement, and certain characteristic lines of interior articulation of the animals. Based on the stylistic assessment, a wide chronology has been proposed for these sites, from the Gravettian to the end of the Upper Paleolithic. However, the most abundant stylistic phase is that of the transition between Style III and early Style IV in the series devised by Leroi-Gourhan.

    In the southern sub-meseta, Extremadura and Alentejo, two groups of caves can be differentiated. On one hand, those on the southern slopes of the Central System and in contact with the Iberian System. These form a ring of sites in the north of the provinces of Madrid and Guadalajara, including the caves of Reguerillo, Turismo, Reno and Cojo, and further to the West, Los Casares and La Hoz. They are caves in areas of karst altered by natural factors and sometimes human impact, especially in the case of El Reguerillo. The most important group is that of the engravings in Los Casares, which include an anthropomorph, a lion and a woolly rhinoceros, as well as deer, horses, goats and bovines.

    On the other hand, in lower areas of the Tajo Valley, in the west of the region, we find caves in more open landscapes. These are the cave of Escoural in the Portuguese Alentejo, and the cave of Maltravieso near the city of C‡ceres, in the Spanish Extremadura. These have a large number of paintings, which are unusual in the higher inland caves and even rarer in the open air, and with more archaic themes, different from the other areas. The most interesting figures are the positive and negative hands, and triangular signs and series of dots in Maltravieso. In Escoural they are black horses with large bellies and short legs, and red finger-marks and signs, as well as engravings of less precise chronology.

    To summarize, the principal features of these sites in the Meseta and the Atlantic coast of the Peninsula are:

    * The themes are quite different from those in the Cantabrian region. The typical abstract signs found in the North do not appear here, and signs in general are not too abundant, perhaps because of the smaller number of paintings than of engravings, as will be seen (although they do exist in several sites). The animals represented give little indication of the environmental conditions, as there is a clear predominance of horses and deer, with bovines and goats to a lesser degree. At least in the Mesetas, many of the more typically Pleistocene species can be seen, although their identification sometimes raises doubts. It has recently become clear that both bison and reindeer are depicted in Cueva de La Hoz. These figures thus accompany other Pleistocene species identified previously: a feline and possible glutton and rhinoceros in Los Casares, or a possible giant deer at Siega Verde.

    The polarization in horses, deer, aurochs and goats is, in any case, greater than is found in the Cantabrian region. The faunal spectra also differ in the virtual lack of chamois among the caprids, or significantly, the greater frequency of stags, so that here they reach equal numbers with the hinds, unlike in the Cantabrian. Finally aurochs are much more abundant than bison, again in contrast with the situation in the north of the Peninsula. The images of fish and other rare species are even rarer here.

    * The techniques are quite homogeneous in character, especially in the Meseta, with a strong polarization towards engraving, nearly always a simple, single line. Striated and scraped lines are found in Los Casares, while the technique of chipping off small pieces of rock, sometimes regularized with lines of abrasion, is typical of the open-air assemblages in the Duero Valley.

    Paint is only predominant in the caves of Escoural and Maltravieso, with red finger-marks, and where the technique of spraying was used for the negative hands, and of printing for the positive hands. Figures in red, yellow and black paint are also known in Atapuerca, El Reno, La Hoz and Los Casares. They are nearly always simple lines, and color-wash was only used in Los Casares.

    * Regarding the chronology, there is an immediate extra difficulty, which scarcely exists in the Cantabrian region, and that is distinguishing the Paleolithic figures from the art of other later periods belonging to the Holocene and sometimes existing in the same sites. The group of open-air sites on the River C™a, with dates based on the style of the figures going from the Gravettian to the late Magdalenian, summarizes the wide chronological range. Going into more detail, the oldest depictions are the paintings in the caves of Escoural and Maltravieso. The engravings in Cueva de la Griega are clearly of Style III, shown by the large-bellied animals, with characteristic long manes and heads, and few limbs. Finally, many other sites seem to be located between Leroi-Gourhan's Styles III and IV. These are Los Casares, Domingo Garc’a, Siega Verde and part of the C™a sites. In other words, a true artistic explosion appears to have taken place between 18,000 and 14,000 BP.

    3. The Ebro Valley and the Mediterranean Coast. The Mediterranean shore of the Iberian Peninsula has an important series of Paleolithic habitation sites, which are well-known due to having been studied since the early days of archaeological research. Some of them, especially Cueva del Parpall— in Valencia, provided a large collection of mobiliary art on stone plaquettes. These contain hundreds of figures, drawn with different kinds of engraving, and occasionally with paint, produced during the human occupation of the cave, and distributed throughout much of the Upper Paleolithic, from the Gravettian to the middle or late Magdalenian. The existence in this area of a mobiliary art of such a plainly Paleolithic style, was one of the main arguments which allowed the Levantine rock art, found in rock-shelters in this part of the Mediterranean, to be dated in the Holocene and to more advanced societies.

    However, Paleolithic rock art was lacking, until in the last few decades when a number of sites have been discovered along the Mediterranean coast. Nevertheless, there are still very few decorated caves in relation with the number of known habitation sites, probably because of the important difficulties with conservation in this area, among other factors.

    Beginning in the upper Ebro Valley, some caves have long been known, in areas in close contact with the northern Meseta. One is Cueva Palomera de Ojo Guare–a, with a group of figures painted in black, in a unique style, but with animal species which are definitely Pleistocene. Another nearby cave is Penches, with animal engravings in a much more conventional Paleolithic style, and probably of Magdalenian age.

    In the central Ebro Valley, only one site is known with definitely Paleolithic art: Cueva de la Fuente del Trucho. It has negative images of hands, in red and black, and always with bent or mutilated fingers, as well as horses and simple lines, meanders or finger-marks. Apart from the caves in the Cantabrian region, Fuente del Trucho, together with the caves of Maltravieso and Escoural, is one of the oldest assemblages in the Peninsula.

    On the coast, to the south of Catalu–a, only two figures have been located in a couple of caves. One is an engraved animal in Cova de la Taverna, attributed to the Paleolithic because of its naturalism and its location inside a cave. The other is an auroch in black, probably Paleolithic, in Cueva de la Moleta de Cartagena.

    Just as in Catalu–a, Levante has a full series of habitation sites, containing mobiliary art which is of great quality and abundance in Parpall—, or less so in Mallaetes or Cova Matutano. But rock art is limited to a handful of caves. The most interesting is Cueva de El Ni–o, near the headwaters of the River Mundo, in an area of transition with the southern sub-meseta, and very near the eastern Andalucian group of caves. It contains excellent red paintings of deer and goats. Nearer the coast, Cova Fosca has a good number of animal engravings, with deer, bovines and horses, of Style II or III. A short distance away, Cueva de Rein—s is a small cave with just one goat painted in black.

    The Segura Valley in Murcia has several caves which have recently been discovered, containing animal paintings of a clear and conventionalized Paleolithic style. Examples are the caves of Jorge, Las Cabras, and Arco I and II, with red paintings of horses, goats, hinds, and non-figurative marks. This group of caves leads on to another group in the east of Andalucia, which in cases like Cueva Ambrosio has art of a very similar style.

    4. The First Andalucian Art. Situated in the extreme south-west of the European continent, Andalucia doubtlessly forms the last frontier of Paleolithic rock art, which does not exist in the north of Africa. A considerable number of decorated caves are known besides one open-air site at Piedras Blancas. And new discoveries are being made with a frequency that suggests more will be found in the future. The caves of La Pileta and Do–a Trinidad, both in the province of Malaga, were discovered and studied at the beginning of the century. Since then, in the last twenty or thirty years, the paintings in the caves of Nerja and El Toro were discovered, and then the caves of Navarro, Malalmuerzo, Ambrosio and El Moro among other less clear ones. Furthermore, a number of interesting Upper Paleolithic habitation sites have been located; the caves of Nerja and Ambrosio mentioned above, and Cueva del Pirulejo, as well as the Gibraltar sites.

    The rock art sites are distributed along the southern coast, at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea, from Gibraltar to Almeria, with a special concentration on the coast of Malaga. A second group is found in the inland hills of eastern Andalucia. So far, it seems that the art of the inland group (La Pileta and Do–a Trinidad) tends to be of an archaic style, whereas a more recent Magdalenian style is more common on the coast, in the caves of Nerja, El Higuer—n, El Toro and Cueva Navarro.

    This first Andalucian art is clearly related to that of its neighboring areas. On its western edge it shows a continuity in its character with those sites in the Alentejo such as Escoural, and in the East with the caves of Murcia (Cueva del Arco) and Alicante. Its main characteristics, then, cannot be separated from those of its surrounding regions:

    * The fauna is exclusively of temperate climates, and not specifically cold. Thus the fauna is much more similar to what is known historically in this region than to the animals represented in more northern zones, in which there was a simplification in the species of ungulates at the end of the Pleistocene, which did not happen in Andalucia. In this way, horses, aurochs, deer and goats are represented, as well as fish in Pileta and possible seals at Nerja. To put it another way, this southern third of the Peninsula does not have the cold Pleistocene fauna which is present, however scarcely, in the Mesetas.

    * The assemblages discovered so far have quite a small number of figures, exceptions apart. Regarding the depictions themselves, there seems to be a relative abundance of abstract or simply non-figurative art. The simplest types are identical to depictions in northern regions, such as pairs of lines and series of dots. Other types are specific to the southern part of the Peninsula, and are stars, or lines forming grilles or reticules.

    * The technical procedures seem to be less diverse than in the North. Simple, single line engravings are known in figures of an archaic style in Cueva del Moro, both in rock and in clay. Repeated and multiple line engravings exist in some cases too. Most of the paintings were produced with simple lines in black or red, or yellow in Do–a Trinidad de Ardales. Color-wash was hardly ever used, or color-shading. Equally, neither clearly bichrome paintings are found, nor figures associating paint and engraving.

    * It is difficult to attribute any compositions to the earlier phases of the Upper Paleolithic, which are poorly represented. Researchers in the area tend to distinguish only two successive styles, which they date in the Solutrean and Magdalenian periods.

    In the first of these phases we can find animal figures fitting well into Leroi-Gourhan's Styles II and III, for example in the caves of La Pileta, Do–a Trinidad and El Moro. These have animals with heavy bodies and short limbs, incorrect perspective, small heads, and conventionalized details in ears and manes. In caves like La Pileta the animals are accompanied by finger-marks in red.

    In Magdalenian assemblages, here as in the rest of southwest Europe, it can be seen that greater efforts were made to express volume and occasionally movement, as in Cueva del Morr—n. Using the same techniques as in earlier periods, it was possible to achieve a greater realism and better coordination of the different parts of many of the figures.
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