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Ekain Cave

Great Panel of Horses, Bear's Nest
Magdalenian Paintings: 12,000 BC

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Ten magnificent painted figures of horses from the Horses Panel at Ekain Cave
Part of the famous Panel of Horses at Ekain Cave. Image by GipuzkoaKultura from Donostia, Euskal Herria. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Why is Ekain Cave Important?

The Ekain Cave in the Basque Country of Northern Spain is noted for its prehistoric cave painting, in particular its panel of horses, which ranks among the greatest examples of Franco-Cantabrian art of the Magdalenian era.

Ekain Cave belonged to the network of hunter-gatherers that lived on the Iberian Peninsula during the final period of the Stone Age, around 12,000 BC.

Its rock art exemplifies the cultural diversity and high level of social integration during the final stage of the last Ice Age.

Overall, Ekain is seen as the finest example of Magdalenian art in the Basque Country.

Black drawing of adult bear and cub from Ekain Cave, Basque Country, Spain
Black paintings of Ice Age bears, at Ekain Cave. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

World Heritage Site

In July 2008, UNESCO added Ekain and two other decorated Basque caves - Altxerri Cave and Santimamiñe Cave - to the list of World Heritage sites, centred on the world famous Altamira Cave near the historic town of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria.

Two other Basque sites - Atxurra Cave and the Aitzbitarte Caves - are also likely to be added to the UNESCO site in the coming years.

Other Important Spanish Caves

Other important paleolithic caves along the northern coast of Spain, include:

Other sites of prehistoric art in Spain, include: Cova Dones (Valencia) Los Aviones Cave (Cartagena), Ardales Cave and La Pileta (Málaga), Maltravieso Cave (Cáceres), and Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar.

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Location

Ekain Cave (in Basque, Ekaingo leizea or Ekaingo koba) looks out from the eastern face of the Ekain hill, in the small valley created by the Sastarrain stream, close to the town of Zestoa (Cestona). Ekainberri, the new museum and replica of Ekain Cave, which was built as a conservation measure to preserve the cave art, is only a few hundred metres away.

Discovery

Ekain Cave (in Spanish, Cueva de Ekain) was discovered in 1969 by spelunkers Andoni Albizuri and Rafael Rezabal, members of the Antxieta Cultural Association of Azpeitia.

The first archaeological investigations, conducted during the period 1969-78 by José Miguel de Barandiarán and Jesús Altuna, were organized by the Aranzadi Science Society and funded by the Provincial Council of Guipúzcoa.

Excavations revealed the presence of humans from the Chatelperronian period (45,000-40,000 BC), although the cave paintings were created much later.

Indeed, based on a comparative analysis with other sites, the artworks at Ekain were assigned to the period of Magdalenian culture, around 12,000 BC - a period known as the Upper Magdalenian.

For the Top 100 oldest artworks in history, see Oldest Art in the World (from 540,000 BC).

Ekain Cave Paintings

Ekain's cave art consists of approximately 70 animal figures, of which 64 are painted and 6 engraved.

Roughly 60 percent of the animal figures are horses, 10 percent are goats. Thereafter, deer, rhinoceros and fish account for 5 percent each. In addition, there are a few pictures of bears and other creatures.

The Ekain cave comprises several different chambers. They include Erdibide, Auntzei, Erdialde, Zaldei, Artzei and Azkenzaldei.

Great Panel of Horses: Zaldei Room

The Zaldei Room contains the most important parietal art in the cave - the "Great Panel of Horses".

This is a pictorial group of equines which was described by the paleontologist André Leroi-Gourhan as "the most perfect group of horses in Quaternary art". As a result, Ekain has become a key centre of Stone Age culture in the Basque region of Spain.

The panel - located on the right hand wall, approximately 60 metres from the cave entrance - consists of 18 figures of which 11 are horses, and begins with three bison. Two are charcoal drawings, while one is painted in red ochre.

All the animals are given their own space - none overlap - and are rendered in different ways.

Some of them are outlined in charcoal. Others are also modelled in black. A few are drawn in black and red, while others are engraved. See also: Stone Age Colour Palette.

In the top right of the panel, a red bison stands with a raised tail. The back legs are unfinished, which stops them from overlapping with the rear of a red horse placed behind and below. The red pigment is made out of limonite, a natural iron oxide mineral.

The assemblage continues with another bison in black and a wonderful horse painted in black and red, accentuated by an engraved outline.

Like many Ekain horses, this one has an erect mane, suggested by means of a continuous line, zebra-like stripes on the neck, and an M-shaped line on the flank. Shaggy hair on the belly is indicated with small vertical strokes.

The red horse, bottom centre of the panel, has the finest front legs of all the equines in the cave, with knees, fetlocks and hooves depicted in detail.

The head – outlined in charcoal - is beautifully defined. The muzzle and nasal passage are deftly indicated, while the mouth is represented by a line. The erect mane is rendered with short vertical strokes.

Opposite this large panel, on the left-hand wall of the chamber, there is a set of eight horses.

One black horse is especially striking. The head is separated from the neck by a line. Its mane is erect, as is the mane of the Przewalski horse - the only wild horse still in existence whose features are found throughout the Ekain figures.

For more Magdalenian paintings of horses, see the 'circus horse' in the Cave of Le Portel, in the Ariège and the polychrome horses at Labastide Cave in the Hautes-Pyrénées .

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Bears Nest: Artzei Chamber

Further into the cave, there is a small open area (Artzei Chamber). On the low ceiling a pair of bears are visible but only from a crouching position.

This is the so-called "Bear's Nest."

The bears are not drawn with charcoal, but with manganese dioxide, which the artist obtained from a handy seam of the mineral, which runs along the wall of the cave a few metres away.

The two bears, drawn only in thick, slightly fuzzy outline, consist of a mother bear being closely shadowed by a cub. Neither animal is given a head or any feet, yet the artist manages to bring these bears to life with only a few simple lines.

Salmon Drawing

Further along is the Auntzei Gallery, a chamber roughly 15 metres long and 2 metres wide, with no exit. For once, there are no horses. Instead, there are 2 deer, 1 salmon and 4 goats.

The deer are engraved only. No paint or charcoal is used on them. Their antlers are shown from the front along with details of the ears, eyes and nose, the neck, the back and the buttocks.

The charcoal drawing of the salmon shows the fish in silhouette, with a mouth, lateral line and dorsal fins. The drawing, some 55 centimetres in length, is carefully placed to exploit the natural contours and hollows of the wall surface. The eye and front of the back are accentuated by a natural hole in the rock, and a rock edge, respectively.

Fish are rarely depicted in paleolithic art: only around 10-12 examples are known. They include the red pike at Pech Merle Cave in the Lot, a salmon at the Abri du Poisson in the Dordogne, a pike at Grande Grotte at Arcy-sur-Cure in Burgundy, a trout at Niaux Cave in the Ariège, and a halibut at La Pileta Cave northwest of Marbella.

The goats appear on both walls. One has horns that are seen in frontal perspective; another is shown lying down. One is depicted in outline only, while another is completely infilled with black.

Bird Outline

During later excavations conducted in 2008 under the direction of Javier Altuna, an item of mobiliary art was discovered. This consisted of a cut out outline of a bird, carved out of a rib bone of a bison. It was lightly burned to lend it a browny-black colour. It was dated to the Middle Magdalenian, around 13,000 BC.

Also, in an unexplored gallery at Ekain (Deba, Gipuzkoa), a small passage named La Fontana was found to contain a range of horse figures, as well as abstract symbols, traced by fingers (known as finger-flutings) on the decalcified clay of both walls.

For more about the chronology of cave painting in Spain, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Caves in French Basque Country

Located just north of the Franco Spanish border is the Isturitz, Oxocelhaya, Erberua cave complex, which is famous for its bone flutes and animal engravings.

Like Ekain Cave, the complex contains the two rarest of prehistoric images - namely, a bird and a salmon.

References

(1) "The prehistoric site of the Ekain cave (Deba, Gipuzkoa)." Altuna, J., and Merino, JM (Hrsg.) 1984. Society for Basque Studies. Series B 1, 1-351.
(2) "Ekain and Altxerri. Two Paleolithic shrines in the Basque Country." Altuna, J. 1997. Haranburu Editor. Debegesa. San Sebastian.
(3) "There: The roots of art in Gipuzkoa." Altuna, J. y Otero, X. (Hrsg.) 2000. Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa. San Sebastian.

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