Monday, January 4, 2016

Prehistoric Cave Art Along Spain’s Northern Coast

Note: Today I’m re-publishing a guest post that I originally wrote for John Schellhase’s Venture Spain blog back in March of 2015. It’s a shame he’s shutting down his excellent website for good, but he invited me to keep this piece floating around the Internet here. Hope y’all enjoy it!

The northern coast of Spain stretching from Galicia to the Basque Country offers a welcome change from the bold landscapes of the country’s meseta or central plateau as rolling, sunbaked plains dotted by battle-tested castles and soaring Gothic cathedrals give way to lush forests, colorful fishing villages, dramatic mountains, and seaside cliffs. But there’s more to this region than the green, rainy coastline. The communities of Asturias, the Basque Country, and Cantabria are home to some of the best-preserved cave art that has come down to us from the Paleolithic era.

prehistoric cave art northern spain
(Source: Víctor Gómez)
Five times older than the pyramids of Giza, the rock art in northern Spain was painted by people who were just as human as you and I, but who belonged to an era so long gone it’s difficult to fathom the epochs that separates us from them. Behaviorally-modern humans emerged from East Africa around 100,000 years ago and soon began to spread across the globe, reaching the Iberian peninsula approximately 60,000 years later. During the last ice age, communities on either side of the Pyrenees Mountains covered cave walls with haunting handprints and striking depictions of wild animals.

When these caves, which most famously include Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France, were discovered in the last century, the paintings they had protected for millennia affirmed the essential humanity of our prehistoric ancestors: that they shared the same impulses for art and expression (and perhaps religion and spirituality) that we do today in spite of the 30,000 years that stand between us. These priceless sites, now on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, were opened to the public not long after they were stumbled upon. That decision, though, compromised their fragile environments; the carbon dioxide exhaled by countless tourists and the slow creep of mold forced authorities to close off the caves of Altamira and Lascaux for the foreseeable future to prevent any more damage.

While the originals remain off-limits in Altamira, with only life-sized replicas on display, at other sites in northern Spain it’s still possible to experience that eerie connection to the distant past that prehistoric cave art offers. Below, I’ll take you to two of these fascinating places: first, the cave of El Castillo, up on a mountain in central Cantabria, and second, the cave of Tito Bustillo, in coastal Asturias. Both sites still allow visitors to come face-to-face with the oldest art in the world.

Cueva de El Castillo (Puente Viesgo, Cantabria)

prehistoric cave art northern spain
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)
This cave bores deep into the cone-shaped mountain of the same name, Monte Castillo. The mountain rears up from the Pas river valley where the tranquil town of Puente Viesgo lies today, and it’s clear that this rugged but fruitful land has been inhabited since time immemorial. A steady water source and fertile woodlands would have been attractive to any hunter-gatherer peoples who lived here.

Follow the road that spirals up the mountainside and you’ll eventually reach the entrance to the Cueva de El Castillo. As you do so, you’ll be retracing the steps Paleolithic man made tens of millennia prior. Authorities have sealed off the passageway that leads inside with a heavy metal door, a portal that connects our modern world of agriculture, industry, and the Internet to a world adrift in the great sea of prehistory.

To reach this door, you skirt the edge of a dig site that has yielded artifacts from every age of human prehistory. After the guide lets you cross the threshold and cautiously locks the door behind him, he leads you down slippery sandstone steps down into the mountain. Groundwater steadily percolates overhead, breaking a silence that is heavy with the dreams of our predecessors.

It’s not long before your eyes are led to a smooth, expansive panel. A faded horse outlined in red humbly trots to the right, while a hefty bison runs headlong into the ground. Nearby, a single left hand waves out at you from the darkness of prehistory. The cave artists would have held out one hand against the rock face while blowing red pigment from a tube held in their other hand, creating a hand stencil in the negative space left by the diffused paint. Almost all of these hand stencils were made with the artists’ left hands, suggesting they were right-handed, like most of us are today.

prehistoric cave art northern spain
(Source: Víctor Gómez)
Deeper into the cave, another panel bears a whole flock of uncanny hand stencils, ghosts who have fluttered about here for generations. The guide will tell you the date of one handprint, and then proceed to explain that another hand is approximately 5,000 years younger. That same breadth of time—5,000 years—covers the entire span of written human history, from Egyptian hieroglyphics through the Roman Empire and on to the U.S. mission to the moon.

You ponder the colossal continuity of this dwelling, a place that Paleolithic humans returned to year after year to practice their rituals, pass down ancestral knowledge, or visualize the hunt—and kept doing so for millennia. Who can imagine what struggles these peoples endured, what love they experienced, what kind of gods they worshiped? They bridged the gap between our animal nature and the humanity that transcends it. Although they subsisted from season to season and obeyed the cycles of nature that all life must obey, it’s clear they had mastered figurative art—a few deftly-placed charcoal lines bring to life a plump, antlered deer that resembles anything you, or I, or Picasso could have come up.

Cost: 3€. You can make tour reservations online.

How to get there: Puente Viesgo is a tiny riverside village outside Torrelavega, Cantabria’s second-biggest industrial city. You can get here by bus from Santander or Torrelavega, but if you’re taking public transportation you’ll have to hike half an hour up the mountainside from the town center to get to the cave entrance.

For more information visit: http://cuevas.culturadecantabria.com/english/castillo.asp

Cueva de Tito Bustillo (Ribadesella, Asturias)

I wasn’t as impressed by this cave as I was by El Castillo. The art is limited to a single panel and the cave itself isn’t stellar. However, it’s still worth making the trek to Tito Bustillo, which is nestled along the banks of the Sella River before it empties into the Bay of Biscay. To preserve the delicate decorations, the cave is closed from November through March, so plan accordingly.

When you arrive, a tunnel bored a few decades ago ferries you from the sunny riverside entrance to an underworld of the past. From these dimly-lit passageways, you emerge in a chamber and see an illuminated panel of animal figures, an island in the darkness.

When I visited, I was struck by just how many four-legged beasts there are galloping across the red-tinted walls, but there’s more going on here than what you take in at first glance. The guide explained that there were actually two separate phases of decoration. One, applied 20,000 years ago, consists mainly of small red points blown onto the rock face and lines that have smudged into red washes. A second, dating to 15,000 years ago, includes the menagerie of horses, deer, and bison that dance around you.

Like El Castillo, this cave illustrates a continuity unheard of in all human history, for the simple fact that it lasted longer than all recorded history itself. The primitive circles that dot the panel refuse to be explained, stars in the vast night of the past still shining years later. What, or who, did they represent? Gods in a pantheon long since washed away by the Sella River? Seasons, years, centuries, or millennia? The ancestors on whose shoulders the artists stood upon as we stand upon theirs?

And was this cave abandoned after first being explored, or was the knowledge of its existence passed down from grandfathers to grandsons and great-grandsons a thousand times over? Was this cave open to everyone, men and women alike, or was it restricted to shamans who stood between the dirt and meat of the everyday world and the swirling spirits of the supernatural? What made that generation of humans grow restless with the fading red dots and spread ochre, charcoal, and pigment across the walls and choose to breathe horses and bulls to life?

prehistoric cave art northern spain
(Source: Nacho Castejón Martínez)
We do know this: whoever painted the vibrant, two-tone animals used crude, wooden scaffolding to reach the upper sections, rehearsing the motions that Michelangelo would later perform in the Sistine Chapel. And they used an ingenious form of lighting: by burning bone marrow (which is rich in fat), they were able to produce a steady fire that produced little to no smoke—an important factor in such an enclosed space. By the eerie light of these bone-borne flames, the artists drew the dark charcoal shapes of zebras and horses, filling in the outlines with a warm royal purple, or adding striking stripes to the flanks.

If you’re lucky, the guide may turn off the lights for a spell while you’re deep within the cave. You’re left to contemplate the forgotten lives and truly human brilliance that produced these paintings so many years ago in a silence broken only by the sweet gurgling of a subterranean river, a sound that would have led the first humans to this very spot 800 generations back.

Cost: 7,27€ (5,25€ reduced). You can make tour reservations online.

How to get there: Ribadesella is a coastal Asturian village about halfway between Oviedo and Santander. Half a dozen buses run by Alsa connect Ribadesella with Oviedo each day, but only two come from Santander. Another option is to ride the Feve, Spain’s narrow-gauge railway that runs all along the rugged northern coast. Four departures in each direction link Oviedo and Ribadesella (two hours), but only two trains in either way go to Santander (three hours).

For more information visit http://www.centrotitobustillo.com/en/2/la-cueva/20/el-descubrimiento.html

Have you ever encountered prehistoric art—in caves or on open-air rocks? Share your experiences below in the discussion thread!
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