Santimamiñe Cave

Magdalenian Animal Paintings,
Engravings: 12,000 BC.

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Charcoal painting of horse at Santimamiñe Cave, Basque Country
Black painting of a horse at Santimamiñe Cave, with its uncanny sense of movement. Image by ETOR Entziklopedia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Santimamiñe Cave: Summary

The Santimamiñe Cave is one of the most important paleolithic caves in the Basque Country.

Used by Neanderthals and later by Cro-Magnon modern man, the cave is most famous for its prehistoric art of the late Magdalenian period, dating to about 12,000 BC.

In particular, it is noted for its magnificent charcoal drawings of horses, ibex, bison, and deer. In addition, the geology of the cave produces some spectacular karst formations, with a mass of stalactites and stalagmites.

Most of Santimamiñe Cave is now closed to the public, but the Santimamiñe Museum provides 3D virtual guided tours, while other interactive features are available at the Arkeologi Museoa (Archaeological Museum), located in the Old Quarter of Bilbao.

Altamira World Heritage Site

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

Two other Basque caves may be added to the UNESCO list, before long. They include Atxurra Cave (Berriatua) and the Aitzbitarte caves (Aiako Harria).

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Santimamiñe Cave is located on the eastern edge of the Urdaibai Nature Reserve in the southern foothills of Ereñozar mountain.

Today, it is part of the municipality of Kortezubi. During the Upper Paleolithic it was surounded by a wide variety of ecosystems, rich in food sources, including fish.

This no doubt accounts for Santimamiñe's popularity as a regular base for hunter gatherers.

The cave entrance is south-facing and sits at an altitude of 150 metres above sea level. Like the caves of Ekain and Altxerri, Santimamiñe is only a few kilometres from the sea.

Discovery & Excavation

Santimamiñe Cave was discovered in 1916 by a group of boys. News of their find reached the local Basque composer Jesús Guridi (1886-1961), who informed the Bizkaia authorities.

The following year, archaeological excavations began and continued on and off until 1962, involving the Basque archaeologists Telesforo de Aranzadi, Enrique Eguren, and also José Miguel de Barandiarán, who would later examine the caves at Altxerri and Ekain.

The famous paleolithic scholar Abbé Breuil (1877-1961) also studied Santimamiñe's black paintings and rock engravings, which he assigned to the era of Magdalenian art - the final phase of the Upper Paleolithic.

Later, several prehistorians - notably J. M. Apellániz and J.C. López Quintana - have revised the chronological record, particularly that of the cave paintings.

Since 2004, a new series of excavations have been conducted by a multidisciplinary team, to determine the precise history and chronology of the cave.

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Human Occupation of Santimamiñe

The main reason for the continued interest in Santimamiñe Cave is due to its lengthy occupation, first by Neanderthals and later by Homo sapiens.

Researchers have unearthed a 6-metre archaeological deposit in the entrance and vestibule of the cave, whose stratigraphic sequence spans the following cultures. (Note: all dates are BC)

The most recent levels indicate the cave continued to be used by H. sapiens during the Mesolithic and Neolithic eras, and also during the Bronze Age and Iron Age up until Roman times.

For more about the chronology and evolution of cave painting in the Basque Country and elsewhere, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (540,000 BC).

Prehistoric Caves in
French Basque Country

Located just north of the Franco-Spanish border is the Isturitz, Oxocelhaya, Erberua cave complex which is noted for its Aurignacian bone flutes, and for its Magdalenian animal engravings and abstract cave signs.

Santimamiñe Cave Art

Most of the cave art at Santimamiñe Cave is found in a side-gallery leading off the main gallery about 50 metres from the entrance.

The side-gallery has a small ante-chamber which leads into the final chamber, full of flowstone, stalactites, stalagmites and other calcic formations.

Details of the Cave Art

Animals of the Magdalenian

For more paintings of horses from the Magdalenian era, see the 'circus horse' in the Cave of Le Portel, in the Ariège-Pyrénées.

For caves who venerated the bison during the Magdalenian, see especially: Font-de-Gaume (salon des bisons), and Tuc D'Audoubert (bison reliefs).

How Old is the Cave Art?

The black paintings and engravings have been indirectly dated to the final phase of Upper Paleolithic art, around 12,000 BC.

The dating is based exclusively on stylistic comparison with other rock art in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art, not on radiocarbon dating or Uranium-Thorium technologies.

The paintings in the Basque Ekain Cave are also dated to the late Magdalenian about 12,000 BC.


(1) "The prehistoric art of the Basque Country and its neighbors" (El arte prehistórico del País Vasco y sus vecinos.) J.M. Apellaniz. 1982. Bilbao: Desclée de Brouver.
(2) "The Cave of Santimamiñe." (La cueva de Santimamiñe.) N. Goikoetxea. 1967. Bilbao: Diputación Foral de Bizkaia.
(3) "Cavern of Santimamiñe." (Caverna de Santimamiñe.) J.M. Apellaniz. 1969. Bilbao: Diputación Foral de Vizcaya.
(4) "Changes in the processes of support and painting in different caves with rock art in the North of Spain: Santimamiñe, Arenaza, Altamira and Llonín" "Procesos de alteración de soporte y pintura en diferentes cuevas con arte rupestre del Norte de España: Santimamiñe, Arenaza, Altamira y Llonín." M. Hoyos Gomez. 1993. in "The protection and conservation of Paleolithic cave art." (Mesa Redonda hispano-francesa. Fundación Archivo de Indianos, Colombres, Asturias: 3-6 junio 1991): 51-74. Oviedo: Principado de Asturias.

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