Palaeolithic Age: 40,000 -10,000 Years Ago

Early Cave Art in Spain

The early humans (Homo sapiens) who arrived in the Iberian Peninsula some 40,000 years ago were probably cave dwellers and presumably hunters, like the Neanderthals and earlier inhabitants.  Still, very little is known about them.  What we do know, however, is that they left indelible imprints in remarkable cave paintings principally, but not exclusively, in caves in the chain of mountains that runs along the north coast of Spain.  


The paintings themselves are calculated to be about 10,000 to 20,000 years old.  Every discovery brings with it, nevertheless, problems not only in dating but even in some cases in the matter of authenticity.  For example, the discovery in 1990, in the Zubialde caves near Vitoria in the Basque province of Alava, of some 75 images (astonishing in their variety of animal figures, hand-prints and strange symbols) was at first greeted with wide enthusiasm. However, most if not all of these are now believed to be clever fakes, fabricated for reasons known only to the hoaxers.

Not so the paintings of numerous other caves along the north coast.  The most famous is undoubtedly the Cave of Altamira, nestled in the Cantabrian Mountains near the picturesque, medieval village of Santillana del Mar.  Popularly called the “Sistine Chapel” of prehistoric art because the paintings are on the cave ceilings, the images are remarkably alive and vivid even after thousands of years.

What gives such character to these prehistoric works, deeply buried in galleries within the cave and executed therefore under flickering firelight, is the combination of lifelike forms and aesthetic sensitivity. The ability to convert, for example, a protruding rock into the powerful shoulder muscles of a bison or the hollows to represent the flanks with such exquisite touch makes it difficult to believe that these are products of the Stone Age. The extraordinary play of texture and shading, and the sight of numerous life-size animals –bison especially, with wild boars, deer, goats and horses, and other animals in lesser number-- leaping or curled at rest against the natural curves and undulations of the cave ceilings produce the uncanny feeling of having entered a time warp. They still seem to have a life of their own in the half light. So realistic and so sophisticated are they that when they were first glimpsed by the young daughter of a local scholar who was exploring the cave in 1879, she is reported to have exclaimed “Papa, Papa, oxen, oxen...”  Nevertheless, when first brought to the attention of the scientific community, the reaction was far from enthusiastic. The paintings were hoaxes was the general cry. French prehistorians were particularly sceptical, but in a delicious about-face they were persuaded to change their minds when several caves were discovered in the south west of France in 1895 with paintings similar to those of Altamira.  
 
         Image from www.worldheritagesite.org        

The Cave of Altamira was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985, which means that it is a protected site; in July 2008, the art in 17 other caves --in Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country—acquired the same status.
    
The purpose of the paintings was not likely to be aesthetic; rather they were probably associated with the hunt (whereby the act of painting was a way to “capture” the animal and ensure success) or possibly with religious functions or magical rites no longer clear to us.  This is especially so in the case of the hand-prints, abstract symbols and geometrical patterns that can also be seen in these and other caves.  Recent theories suggest that the cave paintings were rather connected in some way with fertility rites, but whatever the case, these works are early evidence of social activity, of humans engaged in expressing their desires, hopes, fears, in other words emotions that are still with us thousands of years later.

In the south, there are far fewer caves with similarly realistic representations of animals.   The wall paintings in the enormous caverns near Nerja (east of Málaga) are presently off limits.  But the place to go is La Pileta cave, way out in the countryside in the Serranía de Ronda.


       Serranía de Ronda. View from Pileta Cave.
Here horses, goats, bison and other animals, including humans, are scattered in different chambers; in one gallery there is a fascinating image of a fish 1 ½  metres long and in others comb-like designs and abstract figures. Again dating is difficult but it has been argued that they are about 20,000 years old.

 For information about La Pileta see, http://www.cuevadelapileta.org/textos_archivos/pileta_2.html
For more on Altamira, see the UNESCO World Heritage site http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/310
For an excellent commentary on the art of the Cave of Altamira, see: http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/altamira-cave-paintings.htm 
November 2013: Visitors cannot enter the cave.  The offical web site for the Cave of Altamira states
From 2002, access to the cave of Altamira has been restricted to a small number of people in the fields of conservation and research, and visitors are no longer admitted to the cave. The Altamira National Museum and Research Centre Trust agreed, in 2010, to maintain these access restrictions and keep the cave closed to all visitors.

For an excellent description of Rock face art along the Mediterranean coast (not covered above), see http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/874

June 14, 2012
A article just published in the journal Science has identified a number of paintings in several caves in the Cantabrian mountains of Spain as possibly being the oldest evidence of cave art in Europe. Using refined dating techniques based on uranium-thorium rather than carbon, a team of scholars estimates that some of the art in 11 locations (including the World Heritage sites of Altamira, Tito Bustillo and El Castillo) may range from 37,300 to 40,800 years old.  The paintings consist of red dots, hand stencils and animal figures (BBC article). 

Interestingly, the age of the oldest art coincides with the estimated arrival in Europe of Homo sapiens, in which case the paintings were executed almost immediately upon their arrival. However, since the continent was inhabited by Neanderthals up to about --possibly-- 28,000 years ago, these primitive paintings raise the intriguing possibility of having in fact been the works of Neanderthals.  It is a gut feeling according to one of the researchers. To read the complete article on which these comments are based, and view some excellent photos, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18449711

October 8, 2014
Cave paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi havre been dated around 40,000 years old. There is an interesting comparison of two paintings of hands from Sulawesi and El Castillo cave in Spain: they look so much alike! See: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29415716