Addaura Caves

Engravings of human sacrifice
in Cave of Incisions: 10,000 BC

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Paleolithic engravings of human figures discovered in the Addaura caves, Palermo, Sicily.
Some of the famous Addaura engravings which depict a unique 'sacrificial' scene involving a group of humans. Two figures sit with their heads covered and their bodies arched, due to their bindings. Others are observing or dancing around them. Image by Bjs. (Public Domain).

Prehistoric Art in Sicily

The Addaura Cave (Grotta dell'Addaura) is a famous site of prehistoric art, north of Palermo, in Sicily. It is best-known for the unique content of its rock engravings, the earliest of which were created during the final phase of Upper Paleolithic art, about 10,000 BC.

The Addaura carvings portray highly unusual scenes that are rarely seen in paleolithic art in Europe.

They depict what appears to be a ritual punishment or sacrifice, involving more than a dozen human figures in acrobatic or dance-like poses. This type of scene is utterly unique in Stone Age culture of the Upper Paleolithic.

Other engravings feature aurochs, horses, and a deer.

Since 1997, the Addaura caves have been closed to the public, due to the danger of rockfalls.

Stone tools and other artifacts recovered from the cave, including various items of mobiliary art and Stone Age pottery, are on on permanent display at the Regional Archaeological Museum in Palermo.

Paleolithic Art in Italy

For the oldest art in Italy, see: Fumane Cave Paintings (34,500 BC), the Venus of Savignano (26,000 BC), and the Ligurian Grimaldi Venuses (25,000 BC).

Location and Discovery

The Addaura Caves are a huge complex of cavities, eroded by the sea, which open along the cliffs on the northeastern side of Mount Pellegrino, on the northern outskirts of Palermo.

From east to west, the main cavities are: the Addaura Caprara, the Cave of Antro Nero (Grotta dell'Antro Nero) or Bovidi (Grotta dei Bovidi), and the Cave of Incisions (Grotta delle Incisioni), which contains the engravings.

The Cave of Incisions has a wide entrance, 9 metres deep and 3 metres high.

It was first discovered just after World War II, following the accidental detonation of wartime munitions stored in nearby caves. However, it wasn't until 1952 that the rock art was discovered by archaeologists Luigi Bernabo Brea and Jole Bovio Marconi.

The engravings were then examined and documented by Marconi, whose report was published the following year.

In 1954, the entrance to another cave - Grotta Niscemi - was discovered to the south.

This contained additional rock carvings of animals, similar to those at Addaura Cave and also to those in the Cala dei Genovesi Cave on the island of Levanzo, west of Sicily.

Other examples of rock art found in the region, include the engravings at Puntali Cave (Sicily), Romito Shelter (Calabria), and the Romanelli and Paglicci caves in Puglia/Apulia.

A major contributor to these discoveries of Italian paleolithic art, has been Paolo Graziosi Professor of Anthropology at Florence University, who - along with Professor Silvio Pons, Giovanni Marro and Piero Barocelli - helped to found the Anthropological Institute of Turin University and the Museum of Prehistoric Art of Pinerolo.

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Human Sacrifice Dance Scene

The best known panel of engravings in the Cave of Incisions, extends diagonally for 2.5 metres at about 2-3 metres above ground level, at the innermost point of the cave.

It shows a group of 10 animals, including bison, ibex, aurochs, wild horses and deer - in the middle of which is a group of animated human figures (one of which is female), dancing around two prostrate victims who are the focus of the scene.

The victims' heads are covered, and their feet are tied with a rope which is also attached to their neck, causing their backs to arch in what must have been a very painful manner.

It looks as though they are being prepared for sacrifice by two shamans standing nearby, observed by the other figures in the circle.

A total of sixteen figures are present at the scene, most of whom are depicted in a minimalist schematic way (no hands, no feet), while some have an animal-like headdress or mask covering their head.

Although we know of several shaman-type figures such as the sorcerers in Trois Frères Cave and Gabillou Cave, nothing remotely comparable with Addaura's animated human sacrifice survives in cave painting or rock art from the Upper Paleolithic.

However, the engraved scene in the Cave of Incisions is similar to the "swimmers of Gilf el-Kebir" - the miniature, bow shaped and prostrate figures which were painted in the remote Cave of Swimmers, overlooking Wadi Sura in south-west Egypt. These paintings date to the Neolithic culture, about 6,000 BC.

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Researchers dug a small test trench inside the Cave of Incisions, which produced dates from the late Magdalenian, around 10,000 BC.

For more about the chronology of rock art in Stone Age Italy, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).

Related Articles

For more about Magdalenian rock engravings of the late Upper Paleolithic, please see the following articles.


(1) "Sicilia antica: usi, costumi e personaggi dalla preistoria alla società greca, nell'isola culla della civiltà europea." (Ancient Sicily: uses, customs and characters from prehistoric times to Greek society, on the island, the cradle of European civilization.) Spoto, Salvatore (2002) Rome: Newton and Compton. ISBN 88-8289-750-8. (2) "Riaprite le grotte dell' Addaura." (Reopen the Addaura Cave) Pippo Battaglia. La Repubblica, March 5, 2008.

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