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La Garma Cave Complex

Stone Age paintings, engravings
Signs, mobiliary art 26,000 BC

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Magdalenian black painting of a horse at La Garma Cave, Cantabria, Spain
La Garma Cave: black painting of a horse, almost certainly painted during the Magdalenian era. Image by Gobierno de Cantabria. (CC BY 3.0)

Summary

The La Garma cave complex consists of several paleolithic caves near the coast of northern Spain.

Its spectacular archaeology, which includes a wide variety of prehistoric art, is uniquely important for two reasons.

First, it chronicles human occupation in Cantabria for perhaps the last 400,000 years - an astonishing record of hunter-gatherer culture across all three eras of the Stone Age, up to the Bronze Age.

Second, due to a rock fall, the Lower Gallery (where La Garma's artistic activities were conducted) was frozen in time, leaving a Magdalenian-era cave floor completely undisturbed for roughly 16,700 years.

It makes the La Garma cave complex one of the richest and most dramatic archaeological sets in Europe. So far, more than 200,000 artifacts have been identified and documented at the site.

In 2008, the complex was incorporated into the UNESCO 'Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain' World Heritage Site.

Human Occupation of La Garma

La Garma was occupied by Neanderthals, as well as modern humans, notably Cro-Magnons.

Neanderthals may have been preceded by Homo heidelbergensis, the earliest known human species to occupy Europe.

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Location

The La Garma cave complex is situated on the south side of La Garma Hill, a 186-metre tall formation just north of the village of Omoño, in the municipality of Ribamontán al Monte.

The hill is roughly 6 kms from the coast and 12 kms east of the city of Santander.

Layout

La Garma cave system occupies five levels, listed in descending order, as follows:

Highlights of La Garma's Cave Art

The Lower Gallery in the La Garma cave complex contains a wealth of Upper Paleolithic art across all the main categories, as well as several unusual 'constructions' of a ritualistic nature.

These items are located in three areas, in the first half of the gallery.

In addition, the gallery houses a mass of artifacts which archaeologists have been able to study just as they were left by the last inhabitants of the cave, prior to the catastrophic rockslide, 16,700 years ago.

Altogether, it represents the richest ensemble of paleolithic art and culture to be found in Cantabria since the First World War.

Painting & Engraving

The gallery contains more than 500 cave paintings and rock engravings (including a beautiful, finely engraved drawing of a bison), the oldest of which dates back to the Gravettian culture, around 26,000 BC.

In total, some 100 animal images are visible, including bison, horses, giant deer, ibex, aurochs, and other large carnivores.

Some images are reminiscent of those found at Altamira and El Castillo Cave.

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Abstract Signs

Abstract signs are visible throughout the decorated areas.

In total, there are roughly 100 of these pictographs, including dot signs, a Spanish tectiform symbol, plus 40 hand stencils in red ochre pigment, which date to between 23,000 and 20,000 BC.

Mobiliary Art

The Lower Gallery also houses more than 30 outstanding items of mobiliary art dating to the Magdalenian period. Highlights include:

Constructions

About 130 metres from the Lower Gallery's original entrance, archaeologists discovered several groups of stones which they believe supported three structures, which served as dwellings or ritual spaces.

Outside the structures, waste material had accumulated, including animal bones, flint objects, needles, and sea shells.

In one of the 'ritual structures', the skin of a large cave lion was found.

The area has been radiocarbon dated to 12300–12000 BC.

(Note: compare the constructions of La Garma with those assembled by Neanderthals at Bruniquel Cave in Southern France, which date back to 175,000 BC.)

The Cave Floor

The Lower Gallery has one of the best preserved cave floors known to Stone Age culture in Europe, covering an area of more than 500 square metres.

In addition to 76,000 objects left in plain sight following the rockfall, experts have found numerous archaeological remains linked to the production of the paintings and engravings.

These include signs of the preparation of the ochre pigments for the artists' stone age colour palette, as well as traces of stone tools used for engraving and carving.

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Conservation

In order to conserve its paleolithic treasures, La Garma cave complex is currently the subject of an ambitious research project organized by the University of Cantabria.

Since 1996, a large multi-disciplinary team of specialists from various universities and other institutions (from Spain, France, United Kingdom, Germany, United States and Canada) has been working to identify, document and present the contents of the Lower Gallery.

Thus, in 2003, as part of this project, a replica of the Lower Gallery was created by the same team that made the replica of Altamira.

The La Garma replica is now on permanent display at the Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria.

World Heritage Prehistoric Caves in Northern Spain

The following caves appear on the UNESCO World Heritage list as elements of 'The Cave of Altamira and Palaeolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain'.

Asturias

Cantabria

Basque region

References

(1) Arias, Pablo; et al. (2009). "Burials in the cave: new evidence on mortuary practices during the Mesolithic of Cantabrian Spain". In McCartan, Sinead; et al. (eds.). Mesolithic horizons: Papers Presented at the Seventh International Conference on the Mesolithic in Europe, Belfast 2005. Oxbow Books. ISBN 9781842173114.
(2) Arias, Pablo; et al. (2012). "La Garma (Spain): Long-Term Human Activity in a Karst System". In Bergsvik, Knut Andreas; et al. (eds.). Caves in Context The Cultural Significance of Caves and Rockshelters in Europe. Oxbow Books. ISBN 978-1-84217-474-6.
(3) Cueto, Marián; et al. (2016). "Under the Skin of a Lion: Unique Evidence of Upper Paleolithic Exploitation and Use of Cave Lion (Panthera spelaea) from the Lower Gallery of La Garma (Spain)". PLoS ONE. 11 (10): e0163591.
(4) Pettitt, Paul; et al. (2014). "New views on old hands: the context of stencils in El Castillo and La Garma caves (Cantabria, Spain)" (PDF). Antiquity. 88 (339): 47–63.

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