Franco-Cantabrian Art

Cave painting, drawing, engraving
France, Cantabria, Spain

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Hill of Monte Castillo, a hotspot of Franco-Cantabrian parietal art
Monte Castillo, near the Cantabrian town of Puente Viesgo, is a particular hotspot of Franco-Cantabrian cave painting. The hill contains four major karstic caves - all members of the UNESCO World Heritage entitled: Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain. They include: El Castillo, Las Chimeneas, La Pasiega and Las Monedas. In addition, there is also a lesser cave, La Flecha. Image by Demetrio E. Brisset. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

What is Franco-Cantabrian Art?

The term 'Franco-Cantabrian art' describes a style of prehistoric art which was practised on both sides of the Franco-Spanish border during the Upper Paleolithic era.

More narrowly, it refers to the cave art found in southwestern France (especially the Dordogne, Lot, Hautes-Pyrénées, Haute-Garonne, and Ariège) and northern Spain (including Cantabria, the Asturias and the Basque Country), between about 65,000 and 10,000 BC.

Many of the caves involved are World Heritage sites.

In France, they are centred on the UNESCO World Heritage site made up of 15 listed caves of the Vézère Valley, in the Dordogne.

In Spain, they are centred on the Altamira UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Their cave painting and engraving features naturalistic pictures of animals (notably bison and horses), a few depictions of human and therianthropic figures, and a large quantity of abstract signs, from simple linear markings to complex 'Spanish tectiforms'.

Most of the decorated caves were not occupied by humans, but were used - it is thought - as sanctuaries for ceremonial, ritualistic or spiritual purposes. What purpose the parietal art played in these activities, remains unknown.

Charcoal image of an ibex from the Salon Noir at Niaux Cave
Magnificent charcoal drawing of an ibex, from Niaux, an important site of Franco-Cantabrian cave art. Copyright Wendel Collection. (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Upper Paleolithic art from the Franco-Cantabric region displays a high degree of homogeneity, possibly due to the location of the caves in clusters close to important rivers like the Dordogne, Lot, Ariège, Gers, Tarn and Garonne, and along the foothills of the Cantabrian Mountains in Northern Spain.

The abstract signs and symbols used by Franco-Cantabrian artists are especially useful in helping us to make connections between regions.

Only about 32 non-figurative motifs were used in paleolithic art, many of which were used in France and the Iberian peninsula. This clearly demonstrates the links between cave sites, both within and between the two countries.

Overall, the Franco-Spanish region is one of the oldest and most important centres of Stone Age culture in the world.

Effects of Climate Change

An important trigger for the growth in art and culture across the Franco-Cantabrian region, was climate change.

Evidence indicates there was a significant decline in population in northern Europe, during the whole of the Gravettian (30,000-20,000 BC), as the ice sheets advanced, forcing down temperatures and making life in northerly areas unbearable.

By contrast, the population in the more temperate region of SW France rose throughout the Gravettian (it peaked during the Solutrean), with a marked increase in the number of habitation sites, compared to those present at the start of the Aurignacian.

In the face of this remorseless climate change, culminating in the Last Glacial Maximum (20,000-14,000 BC), Homo sapiens abandoned the more northerly part of Europe and collectively withdrew to an area of refuge in the south.

Later, during the Magdalenian culture, the ice sheets retreated northwards as the climate warmed, taking the reindeer herds with them. It caused an existential crisis for hunter gatherers in the region, from which they never recovered.

Types of Franco-Cantabrian Art

Art forms common to the Franco-Cantabrian zone, include:

Primitive Forms of Expression

Examples include: finger fluting (Chauvet, Cussac Cave, Altamira, El Castillo, Las Chimeneas); handprints (Chauvet, Cosquer, Pech Merle, Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure, El Castillo) and hand stencils (Chauvet, Cosquer, Gargas Cave, Trois Frères, Altamira, Maltravieso Cave, El Castillo).

Cave Painting

This category includes all figurative cave painting and charcoal drawings. Subjects include animals as well as human and part-human figures.

Examples of black paintings can be seen at Chauvet (dangerous animals) and Niaux (bison, horses, ibex).

In Spain, they are present at Las Chimeneas, Santimamiñe and Tito Bustillo.

Polychrome animal paintings, using one or more ochre pigments, are exemplified by Lascaux, Font-de-Gaume and Altamira.


There are robust traditions of rock engraving on both sides of the border.

In France, the finest examples can be seen at: Lascaux, Les Combarelles and Trois Frères, while in Spain the best sites include: Aitzbitarte Caves, Altxerri, Atxurra and Tito Bustillo Cave.

Animal Subjects Depicted

Subjects in Franco-Cantabrian art are broadly similar but not symmetrical.

Horses, for instance, are depicted most often (60 percent of Lascaux's animals are horses), though they can be outnumbered occasionally by rhinos and lions (Chauvet), or mammoths (Rouffignac), or bison (Altamira), or reindeer (La Pasiega).

As a whole, dangerous animals (rhinos, mammoths, lions, cave bears) predominated during the Aurignacian or early Gravettian (e.g. Chauvet and Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure), while prey animals like bison, reindeer or horses predominated during the Solutrean and Magdalenian.

Curiously, far fewer horses were eaten during the Magdalenian, than (say) reindeer or bison, yet the horse remains the number one subject.

In Spain, the depiction of dangerous animals is different. Only Altxerri cave, for instance, seems to include images of these fiercesome animals (one bear, one feline).

Which means either, there are far fewer Aurignacian sites in Spain; or else the fauna were radically different; or else Spanish artists had different objectives.

Fish in Franco-Cantabrian Art

Fish and marine creatures are exceptionally rare in prehistoric art, but examples exist in both French and Spanish caves.

The bas-relief of a salmon at Abri du Poisson is matched by a charcoal drawing at Ekain.

Two pike - at Pech Merle and at Grande Grotte Arcy-sur-Cure - are matched by the large charcoal halibut at La Pileta Cave. There is also a trout at Niaux Cave in the French Pyrénées.

Rare examples of seals are present at the caves of La Pileta, La Peña de Candamo, and Nerja, and in France at Cosquer, near Marseilles.


There are very few human-like figures in Franco-Cantabrian art. Rare examples include:

Abstract Signs and Symbols

Abstract symbols present in both French and Spanish caves include: tectiforms (so-called 'Spanish tectiforms' are more diverse and complex than regular tectiforms), claviforms (club-shaped), dots, lines, penniforms (feather-shaped), scalariforms (ladder-shaped) and triangles.

The best displays can be seen at: Chauvet, Lascaux, La Pasiega and La Pileta.


Archaeoacoustics is a relatively new field which examines the use of sound at archaeological sites. For example, at some paleolithic caves within the Franco-Cantabrian region, researchers have discovered that paintings were located at spots with exceptionally strong sound resonance.

Why? Because it is thought that art and sound were combined to enhance the impact of ritual and shamanic ceremony in the caves.


Prehistoric sculpture has contrasting appeal in France compared to Spain.

In France, while far less prevalent than rock engraving, it appears in the form of bas-relief sculpture (Abri du Poisson salmon) or haut-relief sculpture (friezes at Roc de Sers, Roc aux Sorciers and Cap Blanc).

In Spain, however, there is no tradition of paleolithic relief carving and no venuses.

Main Franco-Cantabrian Caves


The most important prehistoric sites of Franco-Cantabrian art in France, are as follows:


The key sites of Franco-Cantabrian art in the region of Cantabria, are as follows:


Other noted Cantabrian caves include:

Basque Country

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


The main sites of Franco-Cantabrian art in the Asturias, are as follows:

Rest of Spain

Stone Age art is also found in a number of other sites across the Iberian Peninsula. The most important ones are as follows:

End of Cave Art

Beginning around 20,000 BC, the Ice Age reached its maximum and the Earth started to defrost and get warmer.

For example, around 17,000 BC, sea levels started to rise as the huge ice sheets began melting. From 17,000 to 4,000 BC, sea levels rose on average by 10 metres every thousand years.

By 10,000 BC, major warming began to drive the great herds of reindeer northwards, destroying the Magdalenian hunter-gatherer economy and culture, and giving its cave art the death-blow.

By 8,000 BC, it was all over. No more sublime cave painting, or engravings or complex abstract signs.

Later artists, during the era of Mesolithic and Neolithic culture, produced one or two exceptional works, but mostly limited themselves to a range of hunting scenes populated by matchstick men and animals.

Paleolithic hunter gatherers gradually morphed into Neolithic farmers and smallholders. The caves lay empty and decayed, explored only by the curious.

Luckily, certain sites of Franco Cantabrian art, like Chauvet Cave, were sealed by rock falls which preserved their art and culture for the benefit of later generations like us.

Related Articles


(1) "Cave Art" Jean Clottes. (2008) Phaidon. ISBN 978-0-7148-5723-7.
(2) "Journey Through the Ice Age." P.G. Bahn, J. Vertut. (1997). Berkley: University of California Press, 1st edition. ISBN-13: 978-0520213067.
(3) "The Dawn of European Art: An Introduction to Palaeolithic Cave Painting." A. Leroi-Gourhan (1982). Cambridge University Press. ISBN-13: 978-0521244596.
(4) "The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists." Curtis, Gregory (2006). New York, New York, USA: Knopf. ISBN 1-4000-4348-4. (4) "Making the Abstract Concrete: The Place of Geometric Signs in French Upper Paleolithic Parietal Art." (2005) (Thesis) Genevieve von Petzinger. University of Victoria, Canada.
(5) "Redefining shared symbolic networks during the Gravettian in Western Europe: New data from the rock art findings in Aitzbitarte caves (Northern Spain)." Garate D, Rivero O, Rios-Garaizar J, Arriolabengoa M, Intxaurbe I, Salazar S (2020) - PLoS ONE 15(10): e0240481.
(6) "Cave Art and Climate Change." O'Hara, K. (2014). Archway Publishing.

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