In a locally well known cave near an industrial town in Spain, researchers have unexpectedly discovered faint images of horses and hand prints dating back some 25,000 years.
Concerned that activity at a nearby stone quarry had destroyed much of the cave of Askondo, Diego Garate of the Archaeological Museum of Biscay in Bilbao, and Joseba Rios-Garaizar of the Max Planck Institute set out to determine if any archaeological material was still intact. They entered the cave outside the town of Mañaria and searched for bones, stones, and other artifacts. Only on their way out of the cave did they noticed the paintings that they and many others had missed before. “Without a doubt,” says Garate, “[it was] a gift of destiny.”
Speleologists had worked in Askondo in the 1970s, and left their mark in the form of a bright red “3M7” used to catalogue the cave, but they too missed the art just inches away. “They didn’t see the red horse!” says Garate. “Better for us. We will restore the figure.”
I spoke with Diego Garate over email to get more of the story.
How often do people find new paintings in this part of Spain?
The north of Spain is the first European region where caves with paleolithic art were located [in 1879 at Altamira], and for more than a century the findings have followed one another, every time with less frequency. In fact, in the province of Biscay, only four other decorated cavities have been found since 1904, so every new finding is very important.
Do you have any theories about why horses are shown so often in European cave art?
One thing we know is that the Palaeolithic artists did not strictly paint the same animals that they hunted and ate but, for some reason that we can’t understand, they chose other ones. In the north of Spain at the time the horses of Askondo were painted, hind [red deer] was the most represented animal. There are some caves that escape this tendency, perhaps due to regional artistic differences.
How do these compare to the paintings at Altamira or other caves in the area?
The paintings located in the cave of Askondo could be contemporary to the first stage of decoration of Altamira. In Altamira’s “ceiling of the polychromes,” below the famous bison, [older] red figures of horses are detected, very similar to the ones found in [Askondo]. There are other caves in the north of Spain–La Pasiega, La Haza, El Salitre, etc.–with red painted animals near the entrance of the cave, in zones of semi-darkness where still the sunlight arrives. [This contrasts with many of the more famous images from Europe, which are found in the darkest regions of caves. –A.H.]
Are there any ways in which the cave art of Spain as a whole is different from the cave art of France?
For the first periods of artistic activity, [yes]. The advantage of the cave of Askondo is that it is halfway between both territories. This geo-strategic position is reflected in the iconography, with some rather Pyrenean (French) elements like bones fitted into the walls, and some Cantabrian (Spanish) elements like twin outlines, and with others more general elements that appear on a large scale throughout Western Europe like the horses with “duck bills” or the hand stamps.Unlike many other caves, Askondo can still be entered by the same passage used by the painters of the cave. Image courtesy Diputacion Foral de Vizcaya.
Do people living in the area now have any special beliefs about the caves?
There is a very ancient mythology in Basque culture related to caves. In fact, there is an old legend for Askondo cave which says that a young boy from the farmhouse near the cave passed close to the cave every day to go to spin wool in another farmhouse. One day the “lamiak” (half women-half duck mythological figure) who lived in the cave told him not to come back near the cave. He didn’t take care and one day he was [attacked] and disappeared in the cave. It is also said that Askondo cave was a witches’ meeting place.
The Basque language is the oldest spoken language in Europe…This ancient heritage makes us proud and aware of the necessity to preserve it in this globalized world.
What will happen next with your work in the cave?
At the moment, we have only done a preliminary study of the paintings. It is necessary to perform a detailed inspection of all the walls in the 300 meters of cave and also to perform some digging tests to know if there is an occupation site contemporary to the paintings. Also a restoration program is planned for the worst-conserved paintings. All these studies will be the object of a monographic publication where all the results of the project will be detailed.
See More Cave Art From National Geographic