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Caves of Isturitz, Oxocelhaya, Erberua

Basque caves noted for bone flutes
Engraved pillar, abstract signs

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Entrance to Isturitz Cave, uppermost of the three caves in Gaztelu Hill
Entrance to the Isturitz Cave. The highest of the three caves. Image by Krijun. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Franco-Cantabrian Cave Art

The neighbouring paleolithic caves of Isturitz, Oxocelhaya and Erberua, are located in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, an area of refuge for humans during the last Ice Age, on account of its milder weather.

The area lies in the zone of Franco-Cantabrian art, created in southwestern France and northern Spain between about 65,000 and 10,000 BC.

The caves are seen as important due to their lengthy human occupation (c.80,000-10,000 BC), and the range of paleolithic art they contain.

Their first occupants were Neanderthals, who arrived during the Mousterian culture, but were superceded later by Cro-Magnons, who first arrived in Europe around 54,000 BC.

Stone tool assemblages show that modern humans arrived at Gaztelu during the Aurignacian culture, around 40,000 BC, but we don't know whether (or for how long) they cohabited with indigenous Neanderthals.

It is clear, however, that most of the parietal art as well as the mobiliary art, dates to the Middle Magdalenian (c.13,000 BC).

In fact, archaeologists believe that during the Magdalenian culture, Isturitz cave was one of the most important aggregation sites for hunter-gatherers in the Pyrenees.

In 1953, Isturitz and Oxocelhaya were classified as historic monuments.

Today, both are members of ANECAT (the National Association of Operators of Caves Developed for Tourism) and ISCA (International Show Caves Association).

Location and Excavation

The three karst caves of Isturitz, Oxocelhaya and Erberua, are set one on top of another, in the Gaztelu Hill - a rocky limestone outcrop near Hasparren in the French Basque country - about 15 kms from the Spanish border.

All three were hollowed out of the rock by a small local river - the Arbéroue - which flows into a tributary of the Bidouze. Indeed, the Arbéroue continues to flow through the Grotte d'Erberua, the lowest of the caves.

The first cave to be investigated was Isturitz, in 1895. It was followed by Oxocelhaya in 1929, and finally the watery Erberua cave, which was not explored until the early 1970s, when one of its two underwater entrances was successfully accessed.

Isturitz Cave

The Isturitz cave (the upper cave), named after the neighbouring Basque village of Izturitz, was discovered in 1884, after two businessmen (Hourcastagné and Lacau-Barragué) discovered prehistoric objects (flint flakes and worked animal bones) whilst searching for bat guano fertilizer.

Their report to the Borda society in 1895, came to the attention of the prehistorian Édouard Piette (1827-1906).

In 1912, the archaeologist Emmanuel Passemard began a series of excavations which lasted until 1922. His large collection of papers is now housed at the Musée de Saint-Germain in Paris.

Investigations of Isturitz cave continued on and off for much of the 20th century and well into the 21st century.

Cave Layout

The cave was open at both ends until successive landslides closed the southeast entrance. It measures roughly 120 metres in length and up to 50 metres wide in places.

It is generally divided into two parts: the Hall of Saint-Martin (or South Hall), noted for its speleothemes, stalagtites and stalagmites which often link the floor with the 2-metre high ceiling; and the 15-metre high Great Hall (or North Hall).

There are two other smaller caverns in the Isturitz cave, the so-called Rhinolophes (Sepulchral) Hall and Phosphate Hall.

Bone Flutes & Art

Oxocelhaya Cave

The Oxocelhaya (or Oxocelhaya-Hariztoya) cave (12 metres below Isturitz) was discovered in 1929, by the owner of the Hariztoya mill, J. P. Etchegaray, who unearthed a number of human bones and Bronze Age artifacts.

In 1955-56, José Miguel de Barandiarán (1889-1991) and Georges Laplace (1918-2004) carried out excavations in the Ezker Hall, close to the cave entrance.

Laplace also discovered parietal figures in the terminal gallery, since renamed as the Laplace Gallery.

In 1982, further excavations by J.-D. Larribau and M. Lauga led to the discovery of new parietal art works in a lateral passage, now known as the Larribau Gallery.

In the Laplace Gallery, a series of animal petroglyphs included a frieze of three large horses, followed by a small complete horse.

A short distance further on was the dorsal line of a bison. Lastly, there was an engraving of a female red deer

Among the animal figures in the Larribau Gallery, there are two horses traced in clay plus several engravings of horses. One of which is almost 1.5 metres in length.

The Oxocelhaya cave - named, incidentally, after a neighbouring farm - also contains an abundance of spectacular speleothems.

Erberua Cave

The Erberua cave (the lowest cave, 50 metres below Isturitz) - named after the stream which flows through it - has the most challenging archaeology, and was first investigated in 1973, after Claude Barroumès-Garatin, Jean-Daniel Larribau and J.M. Lavigne, managed to access its downstream underwater entrance.

The first prehistoric art in Erberua was discovered by J.D. Larribau, J.C. Guyonnau and J.M. Lavigne.

Since then numerous investigations have uncovered a good deal more rock art of various kinds, although the complexity of the still largely unexplored Erberua network makes it likely that more art is yet to be found.

Erberua is still best known for its array of abstract signs and symbols, although future excavations might reveal much more.

Cave Art

The cave art at the cave complex features several hundred drawings, paintings, engravings, relief sculptures in sandstone plaques, and clay models. Subjects include mainly animals plus a small number of ill-defined anthropomorphic images.

Animals depicted include horses, aurochs, wild goats, felines and fish, as well as a few human-like images.

In addition, as mentioned, the complex has yielded a number of bone flutes, made out of vulture ulnae and other bones.

An important but mysterious feature of the Isturitz, Oxocelhaya and Erberua caves, is the number and variety of abstract signs and symbols which have been discovered at the cave complex.

Among them, are the following:

Artifacts & Fossils

Decorated Basque Caves

The most important sites of Franco-Cantabrian art in the Basque Country, include:


(1) Bachellerie, François; Normand, Christian. The Châtelperronian of level SIII base of Isturitz: myth or reality? Bulletin of the French Prehistoric Society Vol. 107, no 3. (2010) pp. 453-463.
(2) Buisson, Dominique. The Paleolithic flutes of Isturitz (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) Vol 87. Bulletin of the French Prehistoric Society, 1990, pp. 420-433.
(3) Garate, Diego; Labarge, Aude; Rivero, Olivia; Normand, Christian; Darricau, Joëlle (2013). "The Cave of Isturitz (West Pyrenees, France): One Century of Research in Paleolithic Parietal Art". Arts. 2 (4): 253–272.
(4) Szmidt C., Normand C., Burr G., Hodgins G. and LaMotta S., 2010: AMS 14C dating the Protoaurignacian/Early Aurignacian of Isturitz, France. Implications for Neanderthal–modern human interaction and the timing of technical and cultural innovations in Europe, Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 37, Issue 4, April 2010, Pages 758-768.

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