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La Pileta Cave

Solutrean cave art, abstract signs
Black drawing of fish: 18,000 BC

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Charcoal drawing of halibut at La Pileta Cave, Spain
Cueva de la Pileta: charcoal drawing of a giant flat fish, located in the Fish Chamber in the most remote section of the cave. Image by José Bullón Giménez. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

La Pileta Cave: A Summary

La Pileta Cave (Cueva de la Pileta) is a Stone Age cave in Andalucía, southern Spain, which was first occupied by modern Cro-Magnon man around 25,000 BC.

It is noted for a wide range of prehistoric art, including a host of abstract symbols as well as animal paintings.

The cave's oldest paintings are attributed to the Solutrean era, about 18,000 BC, but they may be significantly older.

This is because Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons were producing art in other paleolithic caves across Spain, for thousands of years beforehand.

For example, the nearest important site to La Pileta is Ardales Cave, also in Málaga province. This cave was decorated by Neanderthals as far back as 63,000 BC.

Further north, in Cáceres, Maltravieso Cave was first decorated in 64,700 BC, while La Pasiega Cave in Cantabria was first painted in 62,000 BC. These sites were followed by several other caves in Cantabria, the Asturias and the Basque country, all of whom were first decorated before 34,000 BC.

Given the antiquity of this other rock art, it is natural to assume that La Pileta's artworks are much older than current dates suggest.

Rare highlights of La Pileta's cave art include a drawing of a giant fish and a pregnant mare with red dots.

The site was declared a National Monument in 1924.

Unlike other Spanish sites dating back to the Upper Paleolithic, La Pileta Cave is not run by the Municipal authorities but by the descendants of José Bullón, the farmer who originally owned the site.

Perhaps this, allied to the fact that the cave lies outside the zone of Franco-Cantabrian art, explains why La Pileta has not attracted the scientific attention it deserves and why much of its paleolithic art and many of its passageways remain relatively unexplored.

Spanish & Portuguese Cave Art

Other important rock art on the Iberian Peninsula can be found at:

Location

La Pileta Cave is located in the mountainous karst terrain of the Serrania de Ronda, in the province of Málaga, about 25 kms from the sea.

The first humans in the region were Homo heidelbergensis hunter-gatherers, who began roaming the valleys of the Sierra Betica around 250,000 BC. About 175,000 BC these early humans were displaced by Neanderthals who in turn were displaced by modern man about 25,000 BC.

Discovery and Excavation

La Pileta Cave was discovered in 1905 by a farm hand working for José Bullón Lobato.

However, the cave's rock art went unnoticed until 1911, when Colonel Willoughby Verner - a retired British army officer staying in the area - heard about the "Cueva de los Letreros" (cave of the signs). Upon visiting the cave, Verner immediately realised the art was extremely old and set about documenting his finds.

His reports attracted the attention of several scholars including the renowned archaeologists Abbe Henri Breuil (1877-1961) and Hugo Obermaier (1877-1946), both of whom spent time at the cave examining its paintings and engravings.

In 1924, José Bullón Lobato's son uncovered a second entrance to the cave - the one that is used today - and later discovered a completely new passageway giving access to several new galleries (Las Galerias Neuvas), as well as the "Great Chasm" - a deep fissure located at the end of the 350-metre "Fish Chamber".

Subsequently, scientists surveyed the cave in more detail. In addition to numerous fossils and stone artifacts, they recovered a quantity of pottery and decorative jewellery, including a necklace stone about six centimetres in diameter with a Venus image engraved upon it.

In 1978, researchers re-examined the cave art in Las Galerias Neuvas. They managed to identify over 130 images, although most of the pictographs and petroglyphs identified by Breuil were now obscured by flowstone and thus unidentifiable.

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Cave Layout

La Pileta Cave ('Cave of the Pool' - after the freshwater pools formed by rain seeping through the porous limestone), is a huge limestone cave with 2-kilometre network of passageways, grottos and chasms, much of which remains relatively unexplored.

It has a series of galleries on different levels, some of which exceed 15 metres in height. The best-known chambers include: "The Sanctuary" and the "Fish Chamber", located in the deepest part of the cave.

La Pileta Cave Art

La Pileta's Fish Drawing

In the remotest part of the cave, is the "Fish Chamber", which is dominated by Pileta's most famous item of cave art - a large charcoal drawing of a flat fish (identified as a halibut), about 1.5 metres in length, with what appears to be a baby fish or seal inside it.

Fish in the Stone Age

Fish are rarely depicted in paleoart: only a dozen examples are known.

They include a pike at Pech Merle, a salmon at Abri du Poisson, various species at Grande Grotte Arcy-sur-Cure, a trout at Niaux, and a salmon at Ekain Cave in the Basque Country.

Solutrean Style of Art

In general, Solutrean animal pictures depict simple, stereotypical figures. For example, at La Pileta there is a collection of animal figures (deer and aurochs) which are painted yellow and display features typical of Solutrean imagery.

These features include:

For details of the type of colour pigments employed by cave painters during the Solutrean, see Stone Age Colour Palette.

Solutrean Iconography

The range of themes depicted at Solutrean-age sites like La Pileta, is quite narrow, animal paintings typically being limited to horses, aurochs, ibex, red deer hinds, and stags.

In contrast, abstract signs are more abundant and diverse, albeit quite simple.

Mostly, they consist of lines and dot signs, typically arranged in large groupings.

In addition, there are more complex signs, such as quadrangles and Spanish tectiforms.

Solutrean cave signs far outnumber animal figures and indeed there are some locations (e.g. Almaceta, La Pileta, Malalmuerzo, Navarro and Nerja, among others) where they make up the vast majority of the images.

Dating

How old is the cave art in La Pileta? Right now, there isn't enough hard evidence to determine the cave's exact antiquity.

One radiocarbon dating test of charcoal taken from a drawing of one of the aurochs in "The Sanctuary", provided a date of 18,130 BC, but more tests are needed.

Uranium-Thorium dating methods which were used a few years ago with great success at El Castillo and other Cantabrian caves, would be especially appropriate at La Pileta, due to the amount of dateable calcite flowstone overlying the images.

In the absence of laboratory dating evidence, most dating at La Pileta has been done indirectly on the basis of stylistic comparison with imagery in other Spanish caves.

Based on this, researchers believe that the earliest art in the cave was created during the era of Solutrean culture (20,000-15,000 BC), though some of it might belong to the preceding Gravettian period.

The remaining works belong to the Magdalenian culture, produced between 15,000 and 10,000 BC.

References

(1) "Andalucía: A Cultural History." John Gill. Oxford University Press. 2009. ISBN-10:‎ 1904955444.
(2) "Cueva de la Pileta" andalucia.com

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