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Cave of La Pasiega

Neanderthal paintings, tectiforms
Scalariform symbols: 62,000 BC

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Entrance to La Pasiega Cave located at Monte Castillo, Cantabria
Entrance to the Cave of La Pasiega at Monte Castillo. The hill contains 4 out of the 18 caves from the UNESCO World Heritage site centred on the Cave of Altamira. Image by Avanti. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

La Pasiega Cave: Summary

The Spanish Cave of La Pasiega (Cueva de La Pasiega) is one of several paleolithic caves set in the hillside of Monte Castillo.

The others include El Castillo Cave (39,000 BC), Las Chimeneas Cave (14,000 BC) and Las Monedas Cave (10,000 BC).

La Pasiega is one of the most important sites of Franco-Cantabrian art from the Upper Paleolithic.

Its cave art consists of the usual figurative and abstract imagery, but in much greater quantity.

Indeed, La Pasiega is home to more cave painting and rock engraving than any site on the Iberian Peninsula.

In total, more than 700 different images have been recorded, including petroglyphs and paintings of animals, plus a very wide variety of abstract motifs.

These pictographs include: dotted signs, linear signs, claviforms, polygonals, tectiforms - the most abundant type of symbol and a common sight in other Spanish caves - plus a collection of unique signs and anthropomorphs.

Since 1985, La Pasiega Cave has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site entitled 'Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain'.

Why is La Pasiega Cave Important?

Because it contains some of the oldest art in Spain.

In 2018, scientists using Uranium-Thorium (U-Th) dating techniques, dated one of the cave's painted symbols (a ladder-shaped scalariform) to 62,000 BC.

Which means it must have been made by Neanderthals, as modern humans didn't arrive in the area for another 8,000 years.

The researchers obtained similar dates for paintings at two other Spanish caves - Ardales and Maltravieso.

At the Ardales Cave, a stalactite decorated with red ochre pigment was dated to 63,000 BC, while a hand stencil at the Maltravieso Cave was dated to 64,700 BC.

Neanderthals also produced various types of decorative art, such as painted shell necklaces (Cave of Los Aviones shell jewellery, Cartagena), and white eagle claw adornments (Krapina eagle claw necklaces, Croatia).

So Neanderthal art was well established in Spain by the time modern humans arrived in Western Europe, about 54,000 BC.

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Discovery

La Pasiega cave was discovered in 1911 by the Spanish-German anthropologist Hugo Obermaier (1877-1946) and the French prehistorian Paul Wernert (1889-1972), while they were examining the nearby cave of El Castillo.

Later, they were joined by the French scholar Henri Breuil (1877-1961), and the Spanish archaeologist Hermilio Alcalde del Rio (1866-1947).

In 1913, the four published a monograph on the cave art at La Pasiega, although it wasn't until the 1950s that excavations recommenced. They continue to this day.

Cave Art at La Pasiega

Layout of La Pasiega Cave showing main galleries and panels of paleolithic art
Fig 1. La Pasiega Cave Layout - Main Panels.

The cave is roughly 400 metres long, and consists of a complex network of interconnected galleries, which researchers have categorized into four galleries, A,B,C,D.

Most of the prehistoric art is in the Gallery A, which runs for about 70 metres.

The cave art at La Pasiega consists of about 700 separate images, 40 percent of which are animal paintings, and the rest abstract symbols.

Also, there are about 100 or so petroglyphs - most of which are animal engravings - plus a number of human-like images and handprints.

The animals depicted at La Pasiega include: deer (100) (inc. 69 females), horses (80), ibexes (32), aurochs and bison (31), goats, a megaloceros, a mammoth, a bird and a fish, plus about 40 unidentifiable quadrupeds.

Many of the animal pictures are complemented (or captioned) by abstract signs. The location, number and gender of each animal appear to have been carefully regulated by the artists involved.

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Gallery A

Gallery A at La Pasiega Cave has the greatest pictorial density, containing images of about 100 animals. Most common are female deer, followed by horses, bison, aurochs and ibexes.

The paintings are mainly executed in red and black. This is sometimes enhanced with scraffito scratchings in the rock creating a chiaroscuro effect.

There is no parietal art in the gallery for about 65 metres. After this, there are 3 main clusters of cave art.

The first panel (No 3 on layout map) includes red line drawings of deer, horses and bison, with some infill. Purple reds and some yellow pigments are also seen.

The next distinct body of art (No 4) is grouped around a stalactite in the middle of the passage. It features about a dozen hinds, some horses and aurochs, painted in block red colour (except for the horses which are black) and accentuated either with black or engraved lines.

Nearby, another panel contains mainly deer and horses, plus a pair of bison, all rendered in red outline.

The final cluster (No 5) is located just around the bend at the top of the gallery. This has equal numbers of deer and horses, a few aurochs, plus separate panels of tectiforms and quadrilateral symbols. Again, the figures are drawn in red outline. At the end, the gallery narrows to a defile.

Gallery B

Gallery B at La Pasiega has more engravings but fewer paintings. Pictures of horses predominate, alongside deer, bison, aurochs, a fine male ibex, and a fish. Most painted figures are executed in red - either outline or block colour, with a few black exceptions.

Gallery B is best known, however, for its abstract signs, which are everywhere. They include rods, claviforms, and an arrangement of about 75 red ochre dots.

These abstract motifs culminate in a panel of complex cave symbols, known as 'The Inscription.'

The 'Inscription' of Gallery B, La Pasiega, - a set of complex abstract signs
The Inscription. (Public Domain)

Some experts believe The Inscription is a rudimentary example of written communication.

If true, it sheds valuable light on Stone Age culture in general and writing systems in particular.

Gallery C

Gallery C at La Pasiega has two main groups of images.

A dense concentration of animals (No 1 on layout), featuring stags, a goat, various cattle and two horses, plus anthropomorphs and signs. Main technique used is red outline drawing, plus a few engravings.

The second grouping (No 2) is a dense mix of engravings and black paintings. Images are mostly horses and cattle, plus key-shaped and feather-shaped signs.

Gallery highlights include a drawing of a doe with a delicate head, clear eye and mouth, that appears from the depths of the cave. There is also a human figure outlined in red ochre.

Zone D

This area contains far less cave art, with only a few sporadic decorations. They include a few paintings and engravings of horses, bison and deer, but numerous quadrangular signs.

Note: for details of the type of pigments used at La Pasiega cave and elsewhere, see Stone Age Colour Palette.

Abstract Signs

La Pasiega Cave is a major centre of ancient abstract signs, which appear throughout the galleries. Still undeciphered, and associated with differing animal types, they include some of the oldest imagery in the cave.

The most common symbols include:

Human-Like Images

La Pasiega's human-like images can be more or less representational, and can feature the whole or parts of the human body. The most common partial representation is the female vulva, of which there are five.

The cave also contains various hand images: semi-abstract hands, and red/black hand prints.

There are three completed human figures. In the main gallery there is a female image along with fragments of unidentifiable animals. Another human is rendered in a red block of colour.

The third anthropomorph is the clearest: a multi-colour figure with black skin and a large mouth. It is outlined in red. The figure has a linear sign in yellow ochre which may be a phallus. The figure also has some black horns, but these were likely added later.

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Cave Art Iconography

La Pasiega's parietal art has a complex iconographic hierarchy in which certain groups of animals (horses, deer) occupy the most prestigious (i.e. conspicuous) areas.

These animals are complemented by a secondary set of animals (bison, ibex, aurochs) and other less populous species (reindeer, mammoth, various quadrupeds) which nevertheless fulfil their secondary function.

The animals are frquently accompanied by abstract symbols which are also found in less accessible areas of the cave.

How Old is La Pasiega Cave Art?

As stated above, the chronology of La Pasiega's paleolithic art begins during the Neanderthal Mousterian culture, with at least one of the cave's abstract signs dating to 62,000 BC.

After abstract signs, the next oldest art is almost certain to be La Pasiega's red dots. This is because the British scientist Dr. Alistair Pike examined a number of red-ochre dots in the neighbouring El Castillo cave, in 2012, and recorded dates as far back as 39,000 BC.

Given the close similarity between the dots at El Castillo and La Pasiega, it is very likely they were created around the same time: that is, the era of Aurignacian culture.

As far as the animal figures are concerned, these were created during the period of Magdalenian art (c.14,000 BC).

Prehistoric Caves of Northern Spain

La Pasiega is part of a network of Stone Age caves, which lie along the northern coast of Spain. They were an essential feature of hunter-gatherer culture during the Ice Age. Listed by region, the caves include:

Asturias

Cantabria

Basque Country

We should also mention Cova Dones near Valencia, and La Pileta Cave in Málaga province, less than 40 miles from the decorated Neanderthal cave of Ardales (63,000 BC). Although La Pileta's rock art is currently dated only to 18,000 BC, researchers believe it could be much older.

To see how La Pasiega fits into the chronology of Stone Age culture, read: Timeline of Prehistoric Art (from 540,000 BC).

References

(1) Breuil, H., Obermaier, H., and Alcalde del Río, H., La Pasiega à Puente Viesgo, Ed. A. Chêne (Monaco, 1913).
(2) "U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art". D. L. Hoffmann; C. D. Standish; M. García-Diez; P. B. Pettitt; J. A. Milton; J. Zilhão; J. J. Alcolea-González; P. Cantalejo-Duarte; H. Collado; R. de Balbín; M. Lorblanchet; J. Ramos-Muñoz; G.-Ch. Weniger; A. W. G. Pike (2018). Science. 359 (6378): 912–915.
(3) "U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain". Pike, A. W. G.; Hoffmann, D. L.; Garcia-Diez, M.; Pettitt, P. B.; Alcolea, J.; De Balbin, R.; Gonzalez-Sainz, C.; de las Heras, C.; Lasheras, J. A.; Montes, R.; Zilhao, J. (14 June 2012). Science. 336 (6087): 1409–1413.

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