El Castillo Cave

Hand stencils & black paintings
Red ochre disk dated 39,000 BC

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Hill of Monte Castillo
Monte Castillo hill is home to four major caves: El Castillo, Las Chimeneas, La Pasiega and Las Monedas. Image by Demetrio E. Brisset. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

El Castillo Cave Art: Summary

The Cantabrian cave of El Castillo is home to one of the most significant ensembles of prehistoric art in Western Europe.

Its cave art includes drawings, paintings and engravings, as well as a quantity of abstract signs including red disks and hand stencils - but no mobiliary art or sculpture.

The oldest art at El Castillo is a red dot sign in the Gallery of the Hands, which has a minimum age of 38,000 BC, not long after the arrival of modern humans in Europe.

El Castillo, along with four other paleolithic caves in the locality, namely - Las Chimeneas, Las Monedas and La Pasiega - forms an important centre of Stone age culture, described by one archaeologist as an "encyclopedia of Paleolithic cave art".

Since 1985, El Castillo has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed as 'Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain'.

Panel of Hand Stencils and Dot signs at El Castillo, Spain
Panel of the hands at El Castillo Cave. The oldest painting is the red dot or disk-shape in the lower left of the right-hand box, dated to around 38-39,000 BC. Image by Gabinete de Prensa del Gobierno de Cantabria/ Benjaminfreyart. (CC BY 3.0)

Location and Excavation

El Castillo Cave is close to the town of Puente Viesgo, south of Santander in the Cantabria region of Spain.

It is located in Monte Castillo, a conical limestone hill overlooking the valley of the River Pas, at the intersection of three valleys, close to the Atlantic coast.

It would have been an ideal location to support the hunting and fishing needs of several Stone Age settlements, as shown by its long history of human occupation (since 150,000 BC) and its outstanding archaeological record.

The cave was discovered in 1903 by the Spanish archaeologist Hermilio Alcalde del Ri (1866-1947), a noted expert in Stone Age art.

He uncovered a large number of painted and engraved images in several separate chambers.

A decade later, Castillo was excavated again by Hugo Obermaier and Henri Breuil from the Institute of Paleontology in Paris. Archaeological investigations have continued on and off ever since.

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Cave Layout

The El Castillo Cave consists of two basic areas; a large entrance chamber (the Gran Sala), followed by an extensive labyrinth of narrow galleries - in total about 760 metres in length and averaging around 16 metres below the surface.

The interior of the cave has numerous engravings, drawings and paintings, some of which combine with the natural shape of walls and stalagmites to produce sculpture-like effects.

El Castillo's Cave Paintings

El Castillo Cave contains one of the most significant collections of cave painting in Spain.

It includes a number of outstanding images of horses, bison, goats, deer and mammoths, as well as some rare images of dogs (many superimposed).

Some images are black-coloured charcoal drawings, others - like the red ochre mammoths - are made with more than one colour.

Of these, the black-coloured images have been assigned to the era of Solutrean art (20,000-15,000 BC), while the polychrome works, like the red mammoth, belong to the period of Magdalenian art (15,000-10,000 BC).

In contrast, El Castillo's abstract art - including some 60 hand stencils and dozens of large red ochre discs - belongs to the earlier phase of Aurignacian art (40,000-30,000 BC).

All the stencils were created by spraying liquid ochre pigment over the hand by blowing it from the mouth, or through a hollow tube.

Most of the negative handprints are found in the early and middle parts of the cave, between the Panel of the Polychromes and the Panel of the Hands, although some handprints and abstract symbols appear in deeper, more remote corners. A red disk, for instance, located in the deeper Corridor of the Disks, was dated to about 33,000 BC.

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How Old is El Castillo Cave Art?

The latest archaeological study (2012), conducted by Dr. Alistair Pike and his team of researchers, showed minimum dates of 39,000 BC for a red disk and 33,600 BC for an abstract claviform symbol.

These dates suggest that rudimentary cave painting was part of the cultural repertoire of modern humans in Europe, from the very first phase of Upper Paleolithic art.

Uranium-Thorium Dating Method

El Castillo's rock art has been dated using Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) dating methods to check for the radioactive decay of uranium.

It works like this: as water runs down the wall over the painted image, it leaves behind a thin film of calcite (calcium carbonate). This calcite contains uranium, which is known to decay into thorium at a set rate.

By measuring how much uranium has decayed, scientists are able to determine the age of the calcite and thus the minimum age of the painting.

This makes the El Castillo pictures contemporary with the abstract art at Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar, but about 4,000 years older that the Chauvet Cave paintings in France.

Even so, it is far from being the oldest cave art in Spain.

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How Old are the Hand Stencils?

Dr Pike's team also dated calcite samples overlying two hand stencils in the Panel of the Hands.

The earliest minimum date obtained was 35,300 BC. This shows that hand stencils were among the first examples of parietal art to be created at El Castillo.

How Old are the Animal Paintings?

It is generally accepted that the black animal pictures at El Castillo were painted during the Solutrean culture between 20,000 and 15,000 BC, while the multi-coloured animal paintings were created between 15,000 and 10,000 BC.

Recently, however, dates of between 27,000 and 25,000 BC have been proposed for the yellowish/orange bison.

For more on the chronology of Spanish painting during the Stone Age, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Who Created El Castillo's Art?

We now know that Neanderthals produced a wide range of fairly primitive paleolithic art, including pendants, necklaces and a variety of abstract cave signs.

But one big question remains: Did Neanderthals produce figurative images of animals?

Neanderthals were definitely decorating caves in Europe before modern humans arrived at Mandrin Cave in France, in 54,000 BC.

This much is clear from Uranium-Thorium dates obtained from primitive artworks at Maltravieso, Ardales and La Pasiega.

However, the earliest animal engravings and paintings did not appear in Europe for another 17,000 years. The earliest known examples are those at Altxerri Cave (37,000 BC) in the Spanish Basque region.

As it happens, this coincides almost exactly with the date when Neanderthals became extinct.

Which implies that it was modern humans, like Cro-Magnons that created Europe's figurative art, not Neanderthals.

Not all scientists agree with this viewpoint, however, and the debate continues.

Stone Age Caves in Northern Spain

The northern coast of Spain - an important region within the zone of Franco-Cantabrian art during the Upper Paleolithic, with a successful hunter-gatherer culture that drew in migrants from the colder north.

Here is a regional list of the main caves from this period:



Basque Country

La Pileta Cave, less than 40 miles from the decorated Neanderthal cave of Ardales (63,000 BC), in Málaga province, is also worth a mention.

While La Pileta's rock art is dated only to 18,000 BC, some archaeologists believe it could be much older.


(1) "U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain". Pike, A. W. G.; Hoffmann, D. L.; Garcia-Diez, M.; Pettitt, P. B.; Alcolea, J.; De Balbin, R.; Gonzalez-Sainz, C.; de las Heras, C.; Lasheras, J. A.; Montes, R.; Zilhao, J. (14 June 2012). Science. 336 (6087): 1409–1413.
(2)"The chronology of hand stencils in European Palaeolithic rock art: implications of new U-series results from El Castillo Cave (Cantabria, Spain)." Marcos García-Diez, Daniel Garrido, Dirk. L. Hoffmann, Paul B. Pettitt, Alistair W. G. Pike & Joao Zilhão. Journal of Anthropological Sciences. Vol. 93 (2015), pp. 1-18.

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