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Kapova Cave

Shulgan-Tash Shelter
Black drawings, paintings 14,500 BC

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Entrance to Kapvova (Kapovaya) Cave, Russia
The entrance to Kapova Cave, situated on the southern slope of the Sarykuskan mountain. To the left of the entrance is a lake - the source of the river Shul'gan which flows through the cave. Photo: Muratov Vitold. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Kapova Cave: Summary

Kapova Cave (Shulgan-Tash) is a limestone karst rock shelter situated in the Shulgan-Tash Nature Reserve in the western foothills of the Southern Ural Mountains.

The cave is one of the largest paleolithic caves in Europe, with over three kilometres of chambers and galleries.

It is best-known for its prehistoric cave painting, which features images of mammoths, horses and anthropomorphic figures in red ochre.

In addition, there are a number of hand stencils as well as abstract signs, including quadrangles and triangles.

Kapova is also noted for its unusual archaeoacoustics, that is the relationship between sound resonance and the location of its cave art.

This prehistoric art dates back to the Magdalenian culture (15,000-10,000 BC), during the final phase of the Upper Paleolithic.

Interestingly, although the cave itself was known since the 18th century, its rock art was only discovered in the late-1950s.

The word "Shulgan-Tash" comes from the Bashkir word "Tash" (stone), and "Shulgan" (the river that flows by the cave). The origin of the name "Kapova" (temple) comes from the cave's legendary use as a sanctuary.

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Kapova/Shulgan-Tash joins an impressive list of Russian sites rich in paleolithic art dating back to the mid-Gravettian period.

Famous artworks include: the Venuses of Kostenki, and the Gagarino Venuses, both from the Voronezh Oblast; the Avdeevo Venuses from the Kursk region; the Zaraysk Venus from southeast of Moscow; and the Venus of Eliseevichi (14,000 BC) from Briansk.

Treasures from further afield include the Shigir Idol from the southern Urals, as well as the Mal'ta Venuses and the Buret Venuses from Baikal Siberia, near Irkutsk.

For the chronology of painting and sculpture in Stone Age Russia, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Red ochre paintings of mammoths and horses at Kapova Cave, Southern Urals
Paintings of mammoths and horses. Kapova cave is best known for its Magdalenian-era red cave paintings and drawings. It is the most northerly decorated cave in the world. Photo: SaganZ. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Location and Discovery

Kapova Cave (aka Kapovaya Cave) is one of several subterranean rock shelters found on the Belaya River in the Shulgan-Tash Preserve.

It was first recorded in 1760, by the explorer P.I.Rychkov. Almost two centuries passed. Then, in 1959, zoologist Alexander Ryumin, a researcher at the Bashkir state natural reserve, went into the Kapova Cave looking for bats, only to stumble on galleries of colourful pictures of mammoths, horses, bison and rhinos.

This was groundbreaking news, since it was then thought that Stone Age cave painting was found only in France and Spain.

As a result, Kapova cave became an overnight sensation as an important centre of Stone Age culture in central Eurasia.

Ryumin's chance discovery led to a more thorough investigation of the cave, in the 1960s, by scientists from the Institute of Archaeology of the USSR, led by Otto Bader, who indirectly carbon-dated the cave paintings to the final period of Stone Age art, around 12,500 BC.

Further examinations were carried out in the 1980s by V.E.Shchelinsky, and by experts from the Russian Geological Institute and the Russian Geographical Society.

In 2019, the latest investigations discovered a completely new set of drawings and engravings, just before the first decorated hall of the ground floor.

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Kapova Cave Layout

Kapova has three levels of spacious halls, galleries, grottos and passageways, that extend for three kilometres.

It also contains underwater cavities, and underground lakes and an underground river. The latter flows out of the cave, forming the 'Blue Lake' at its entrance, so-called because of the colour of the water, caused by raised levels of lime.

From the mouth of the cave (the Portal) a passageway leads to a series of ground-level halls connected by tunnels of differing lengths.

First, comes the Main Gallery, then the Stalagmite hall.

After this, comes the Dome hall (some geometric signs) and the Hall of the Signs (lots of abstract signs) and, finally the Hall of Chaos (paintings of long-haired horses, more abstract signs, plus an image of a human-like figure).

The deeper we go, the more stalactites and stalagmites we see.

In order to get to the upper tier of the cave we must return to the Stalagmite hall, where there is a hole in the roof and a ladder leading upwards. This leads to a long spacious hall known as the First Gallery.

After this, comes the famous Hall of the Drawings.

The upper tier in this hall displays the oldest rock art. They were painted during the Magdalenian era. On the lower tier are later images produced at the end of the ice age.

Other chambers include: the Second Gallery, the Oval hall, the Hall Temple, the Upper and Diamond halls, the Hall of Upper Lake, the Gallery hall, and the Hall of the Abyss.

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Kapova Cave Art

Kapova's cave art includes more than 200 paintings and drawings of animals (mammoths, horses, bison, bears, rhinoceroses and camels) and a few anthropoid figures, mostly painted with ochre and animal fat.

There is also some prehistoric sculpture (reliefs), as well as some newly discovered engravings. In all there are six categories of prehistoric art, as follows:

For more about the paint pigments used at Kapova and other prehistoric sites, see: Stone Age Colour Palette.

Significance

Kapova Cave is the only known site of Paleolithic-era cave painting as far east as the Urals.

The only other decorated rock shelter, the Ignatievska cave (also known as Yamazy-Tash) - about 120 km distant from Kapova - has been excavated and dated to the Mesolithic.

So, is the cave art at Shulgan-Tash an independent phenomenon, or part of the European-wide "explosion of creativity" that took place during the last Ice Age?

The evidence suggests the latter, since the art at Shulgan-Tash is similar to that of Western Europe.

Note: For an even more significant site of cave painting in Eastern Europe, see: Coliboaia Cave Art (30,000 BC) near Pietroasa, in Romania.

References

(1) The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Silberman, Neil Asher, ed. (2012). Oxford University Press. p. 176.
(2) "Bashkiria: new research "aged" the rock paintings of the Kapova cave twice." Ufa-press media. April 13, 2016. (Russian).
(3) "L'Art paléolithique d'Europe orientale et de Sibérie." Abramova Z. 1995. Grenoble: Jérôme Millon.

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