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Aitzbitarte Caves

Contain similar engravings to
Gargas & Cussac caves in France

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Entrance to the Aitzbitarte caves, Aitzbitarte Hill, Gipuzkoa, Spain
Entrance to Aitzbitarte cave network, which includes 4 decorated caves at Aitzbitarte Hill, Gipuzkoa, Cantabria, Spain. Image by Errenteriako Udala. CC BY-SA 3.0

Summary

The four decorated paleolithic caves, known as Aitzbitarte III, IV, V and IX, were discovered in 2015 in Aitzbitarte Hill on the eastern edge of Spanish Cantabria. They are best known for a Gravettian style of parietal art, which is unknown in the Iberian Peninsula but very similar to imagery found in caves across the border in France. The discovery of this art highlights the interconnected nature of Stone Age culture, in particular, the networks within the zone of Franco-Cantabrian art during the last Ice Age.

Bison engraving at Aitzbitarte Cave
Engraved drawing of a Bison in the Aitzbitarte cave. This type of engraving method was previously unknown south of the Pyrenees. Image by Diego Garate Maidagan/ Gipuzkoako Foru Aldundia. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Location

The Aitzbitarte cave network is one of five important sites of Stone Age culture in the Basque region, alongside Altxerri Cave (Monte Beobategaña), Atxurra Cave (Berriatua) Ekain Cave (Cestona), and Santimamiñe Cave (Kortezubi).

Aitzbitarte hill is located in the province of Gipuzkoa, less than 25 kms from the French border. It occupies a strategic position overlooking the land bridge that connects the Iberian Peninsula with the European Continent.

Caves III, IV and V are arranged one on top of another, Cave III being the lowest. The exception is Aitzbitarte IX, which lies underneath Cave III and is only accessible through it.

Aitzbitarte Cave III extends along a low horizontal passage for about 100 metres, before it narrows and ends in a 10-metres vertical shaft, which leads down to Aitzbitarte Cave IX.

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Excavation

Important Discoveries

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Unique Spanish Petroglyphs

According to lead archaeologist Diego Garate, of the University of Cantabria, the cave art at Aitzbitarte consisted mostly of engraved drawings of bison, complete with their typical horns and humps.

The figures were depicted in a particular style, in which the horns and legs of the bison were drawn without proper perspective.

Pairs of limbs were rendered as a ‘double Y’ with both legs visible, and the horns were drawn side-by-side with a cluster of lines between them.

The style of these petroglyphs was consistent with the idiom seen in France during the Gravettian cultural complex, between roughly 32,000 and 22,000 BC, Garate added, but never before on the Iberian Peninsula.

The investigation, he said, revealed the network of hunter-gatherer communities that existed in parts of Western Europe during the Gravettian.

Gargas cave, for instance, is 421 km distant from Cussac, which is 315 km from Aitzbitarte.

The Gravettian was a pan-European cultural complex which is best known for its venus figurines and hand stencils, although these are not its only characteristics.

In south-west France, for example, Gravettian drawings are characterized by the absence of perspective in figurative works, very similar to the animal figures at Aitzbitarte.

Cave Art

Aitzbitarte III

Eleven decorated panels have been identified here, over a distance of 10 metres. The height of these panels increases as the passage descends.

The engravings begin with a depiction of a complete horse with a stepped mane, an eye and large belly.

Opposite, a headless bison can be seen consisting of hind legs, rump, tail and back.

After this comes a complete bison with horns in correct perspective.

Other animal figures include an ibex, a horse, a bird, a third bison and two aurochs.

Aitzbitarte V

Aitzbitarte Cave V is found on the same western side of the hill, but about 20 metres higher than the other archaeological sites (Caves III, IV and IX).

It is a shorter cavity, no more than 60 metres in length. The inner cave consists of a straight passage, which averages 2 metres in width and between 2 and 4 metres in height.

The engravings are located along the final stretch of the cave. Three are attributed to the Gravettian (absence of perspective) and the other to the Magdalenian (more naturalism and proper perspective).

The animals depicted include at least 9 bison and an indeterminate animal head. A quantity of non-figurative finger-flutings are also visible. The style of the bison is unmistakably Magdalenian.

Aitzbitarte IX

The original entrance to this cave is now impassable due to the partial collapse of the roof. The cave is now only accessible via a 10 metre chimney shaft that connects the end of Cave III (on the upper level of the cave network) with Cave IX (on the lower level).

The art here consists of a schematic engraving of a bison along with a number of finely engraved abstract signs and symbols (lines, triangles).

The bison is reminiscent of bison representations created during the Gravettian, at Isturitz and other caves in the northern French Pyrenees.

Aitzbitarte IV

The last parietal art to be discovered was the unique composition found in cave IV, in which natural clay from the walls was engraved and modelled to create low-relief bison, horses, reindeer and vulvas.

The presence of engraved vulvas dates this cave to Middle Magdalenian sites in the French Pyrenees region, such as Bédeilhac, Oxocelhaya and Montespan.

Prehistoric Caves in Northern Spain

In addition to the Basque caves referred to, above, there are a number of important prehistoric caves along the northern coast of Spain. They include:

Asturias

Cantabria

References

(1) D. Garate et al. 2020. 'Redefining shared symbolic networks during the Gravettian in Western Europe: New data from the rock art findings in Aitzbitarte caves (Northern Spain).' PLoS ONE 15 (10).
(2) D. Garate et al. 'Alkerdi 2: a new Gravettian rock art cave in Western Pyrenees.' International Newsletter on Rock Art. 2017; 80: p. 10–12.

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