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Altxerri Cave

Oldest figure paintings in Europe
Aurignacian art: 37,000 BC

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Engraved drawing of a Saiga antelope, Altxerri Cave, Basque Country
Rock carving of an antelope at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Altxerri Cave in Monte Beobategana, Gipuzkoa. Image by GipuzkoaKultura. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Why is Altxerri Important?

Altxerri Cave is recognized as one of the oldest sites of prehistoric art in Europe, and the leading centre of Stone Age culture in the Basque region of Spain.

Two separate sets of radiometric dating tests conducted on bone material associated with a panel of animal paintings in an upper gallery, known as Altxerri B, have dated the paintings to 37,000 BC.

This means that the oldest art in the cave dates to the period of Aurignacian art, just as modern man arrived in Spain. In addition, the lower main gallery contains one of the largest collections of rock engravings in the country, which date to the final phase of Upper Paleolithic art, some 25,000 years later.

World Heritage Site

In July 2008, UNESCO added Altxerri and two other decorated Basque caves - Ekain Cave and Santimamiñe Cave - to the group of World Heritage sites, centred on the famous Cave of Altamira near Santillana del Mar, about 30 km west of Santander.

The Basque Atxurra Cave at Berriatua will surely follow soon, as may the Aitzbitarte Caves in Aiako Harria.

Other sites in the Altamira World Heritage site, include:

This network of Stone Age caves provides a complete range of paleolithic art from the Aurignacian to the Magdalenian.

Stone Age art is also found in a number of other paleolithic caves across the Iberian Peninsula.

The most important ones include: Los Aviones (Cartagena), Ardales Cave and La Pileta Cave (both Malaga), the Cave of Maltravieso (Cáceres), Cova Dones (Valencia) and Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar.

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Location

The Basque cave of Altxerri ('Altxerriko leizea' or 'Altxerriko koba') is found near the coast, in the limestone hillside of Monte Beobategaña, within the municipality of Aya (Gipuzkoa). Roughly 2 kilometres in length, it has an upper and lower level and a number of connecting shafts.

Caves in French Basque Country

Located some 15 kms north of the Spanish border is the Isturitz, Oxocelhaya, Erberua cave complex, which is famous for its Aurignacian bone flutes, animal engravings and abstract cave signs.

Discovery

Altxerri Cave was discovered initially in 1956 as a result of quarrying work, when a hole was uncovered which led into a large cave.

However, no one attempted to explore the connecting shafts until October 1962 when F. Aranzadi, J. Migliaccio and J. C. Vicuña - spelunkers from the Aranzadi Science Society at San Sebastián - visited the cave and discovered the panels of prehistoric art.

The find was reported to José Miguel de Barandiarán, the Director of the Society's Prehistory Department, who would also be involved in the excavation of Ekain Cave, also in the Basque Country.

Barandiaran duly explored the cave and in 1964 published his findings. Since then, Altxerri has been the subject of further studies by other archaeologists, as well as general review by Dr Aitor Ruiz-Redondo, whose report attributed the art in Altxerri B to the Aurignacian era, around 37,000 BC.

Cave Art at Altxerri

The rock art at Altxerri was produced in two separate areas of the complex: a lower level, and an upper level known as Altxerri B.

On the lower level the art is located in the main gallery, at least 100 metres from the entrance, and also in two side-passages.

In total there are about 140 images, including animals and abstract signs, 120 of which are engraved.

Of these, 92 are images of animals. The most commonly depicted animal is the bison (53 engravings). Other animals depicted include: the reindeer (6), deer (4), ibex (4), horses (3), aurochs (3), antelope (2), a wolverine, a fox, a hare, a snake, and a bird.

In addition, the gallery contains some anthropomorphic figures.

Most images are grouped in panels, and in the final passage, in friezes, exploiting the long limestone walls of the cave.

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Cave Art: Lower Level

The parietal art on the lower level has been divided into seven groups.

Dating: Lower Level

The cave art found on the lower level at Altxerri is attributed by detailed stylistic comparison to the era of Magdalenian art, around 12,000 BC. It was created about the same time as the paintings at Ekain Cave, 20 kilometres to the west.

Cave Art: Altxerri B

To explain the cave art in the less accessible upper level of the cave - known as Altxerri B - we will focus on the main panel located on a vertical wall in the large chamber, opposite the original entrance.

The other art in the chamber consists of very simple motifs - all painted in red - such as, several series of dots, stains of colour on stalagmites, various lines, etc.

The Main Panel contains a painted area about 4.5 x 3 metres in size. The bad condition of the paintwork and the number of superimposed and intermingled images makes identification of all the motifs almost impossible.

Even so, one can make out at least 14 graphic units. A large bison, a feline, a bear, and a horse's head, as well as a number of very expressive motifs.

The latter include: four series of lines, two groups of finger markings, eight pairs of parallel marks, and a more complex but ill-defined sign.

The large bison is the centre of the entire assemblage, as the other motifs are located inside it, except for the four series of lines, which are above it, and several colour stains.

The bison faces left and is exceptionally large (4 x 2 metres).

It consists of a head, front leg, the cervical-dorsal line and a tail. Other details include eye, eyebrow, ear, beard, and one longhorn. It is painted with a red outline, about 15 cm in width.

Below the cervical-dorsal line, is the figure of a spotted feline that faces right.

The belly and rear legs are faded, but the buttocks, raised tail, back, and an ear are much clearer. The head is difficult to see among all the other lines.

To its right and below the bison’s croup, a bear faces left. It is simply drawn with no internal details and one front and back leg.

Below the feline there is an angular sign. Below this, a possible horse's head facing right can be made out.

All of the animals, except for the bison, are painted in violet.

For more about the pigments employed by cave painters in the Basque country and elsewhere, see Stone Age Colour Palette.

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Dating: Altxerri B

How old is the cave painting in Altxerri B? According to radiocarbon dating of bone material associated with the paintings on the main panel, researchers obtained dates of 37,000 BC.

Altxerri's art is now older than that of Chauvet Cave (34,500 BC) in the French Ardèche, and becomes the oldest site of figurative painting in the region of Franco-Cantabrian Art of the Upper Paleolithic.

For more about the chronology of Paleolithic cave painting in France and Spain, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

References

(1) "La cueva de Altxerri y sus figuras rupestres." (The Altxerri cave and its cave figures) José Miguel de Barandiarán. 1964. Munibe 16: 91-141.
(2) "Not only Chauvet: Dating Aurignacian rock art in Altxerri B Cave (northern Spain)." C. González-Sainz, A. Ruiz-Redondo, D. Garate-Maidagan, E. Iriarte-Avilés. (2013) Journal of Human Evolution, 65 (nº4), pp. 457-464.

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