Cave of La Pasiega (16,000 BCE)
The Cave of La Pasiega (Cueva de La Pasiega) is one of the famous Monte Castillo sites of Franco-Cantabrian Cave art in northern Spain. It belongs to the same network of caves as El Castillo, Las Monedas and Las Chimeneas, and is included in the same UNESCO list of World Heritage sites as the Altamira Cave. Like the El Castillo Cave paintings and the highly sophisticated Altamira Cave paintings, La Pasiega's art consists of figurative and abstract imagery, but in greater quantity. In fact, La Pasiega contains more parietal art than any site in the Iberian Peninsula. In total, more than 700 separate images have been identified, including rock engravings and paintings of animals, plus a quantity of abstract pictographs including dots, rods, claviforms, polygonals, tectiforms and feather-shaped symbols, as well as various anthropomorphs. Archeologists have assigned most of the animal figures to Magdalenian art (14,000 BCE), while the red ochre dots - thought to be among the oldest art of the cave - are ascribed to Early Solutrean art (c.19,000 BCE). Overall La Pasiega's cave art is contemporaneous with its sister sites at Monte Castillo, as well as La Pileta Cave (18,000 BCE) in Malaga Province, southern Spain. To see how La Pasiega fits into the overall chronology of ancient art, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
The Cave of La Pasiega is one of several caves located in the hillside of Monte Castillo, in the Spanish municipality of Puente Viesgo, Cantabria. The others include (from north to south) El Castillo, Las Chimeneas, La Flecha, and Las Monedas, as well as the smaller caves (covachas) of lesser importance like Castanera and Lago.
The cave was discovered in 1911 by the German anthropologist Hugo Obermaier (1877-1946) and the French paleontologist Paul Wernert (1889-1972), while they were excavating the neighbouring cave of El Castillo. Later, Obermaier and Wernert were joined by the French archeologist Henri Breuil (1877-1961), and the Spanish archeologist Hermilio Alcalde del Rio (1866-1947), all of whom contributed to a monograph (published 1913) on the rock art at La Pasiega. Further progress was then interrupted by World War I, the Spanish Civil War and World War II, and so it wasn't until the 1950s that excavations recommenced at Monte Castillo, when the caves of Las Monedas and Las Chimeneas were unearthed. Investigations, while not continuous, have been ongoing in the area ever since.
The Cave of La Pasiega is approximately 400 metres (1,300 ft) in length, and consists of a complex network of subterranean interconnected galleries, which researchers have categorized into four main parts. They are 'Galleries' A, B and C, plus 'Zone' D, which is situated at the intersection between A and B, and Gallery C. In fact, the majority of the prehistoric art is located in the main Gallery (A) which runs for about 95 metres (320 feet), and contains openings to the secondary galleries.
Cave art at La Pasiega consists of some 700 examples of cave painting, about 40 percent of which are paintings of animals, and the rest abstract symbols. In addition, there are about 100 or so petroglyphs - the vast majority being engraved drawings of animals, plus a number of images of female genitalia. On top of this there are one or two hand stencils and other handprints, as well as hundreds of other wall markings, some partly erased.
The animals depicted at La Pasiega include reindeer (about 100), horses (80), ibexes (32), bison (17), aurochs (14), 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. In addition, the number, gender and location of the animals appear to have been carefully regulated by the prehistoric artists involved.
Gallery A has the greatest pictorial density, containing images of about 100 animals. Most common are stags and does, followed by horses, bison, aurochs and ibexes. The paintings are predominantly executed in red outline. At the end of the gallery geometric signs in red and yellow are grouped together on a wall. In another narrow gallery there are a number of quadrilateral signs.
Gallery B has fewer paintings but more engravings, and some of the imagery is highly original. Horses dominate the animal pictures alongside aurochs, bison, chamoises and goats, most of which, if not engraved, are rendered in red. Abstract signs are also conspicuous. They include rods, key-shapes, claviforms, as well as an assemblage of about 75 red dots. In addition, there is a mysterious group of symbols, known as "The Inscription".
Gallery C also contains a mixture of paintings, engravings and abstract signs. The main pictorial technique is red outline drawing, but there are several high quality striated engravings. Highlights include a drawing of a female deer that seems to appear from the depths of the cave, with its delicate head, well-defined eye and mouth. There is also a mysterious human figure outlined in red ochre.
Zone D is an intermediate area of the cave which contains fewer images with no obvious coherency. It might even have been an extension of Gallery C. It features paintings and engraved drawings of horses, bison and deer, and a number of quadrangular signs.
La Pasiega Cave is a major centre of prehistoric abstract signs, which appear throughout the galleries. Still undeciphered, and associated with differing animal types, they include some of the oldest Stone Age art in the cave.
The most common symbols include:
Tectiform signs. The most common of all the abstract markings at La Pasiega, except in Gallery B, from which they are completely absent. Other caves with tectiforms include the nearby cave of El Castillo and the important Font-de-Gaume Cave sanctuary in France.
Linear signs. These include simple lines (rods), or pairs of lines, arrows, javelins, feather-shapes (penniforms), and the like. Sometimes associated with hinds, they may also function as navigational aids for cave visitors. Linear signs are a visible feature on the ceiling of the Axial Gallery, at Lascaux Cave.
Claviform signs (key-shaped). Sometimes associated with horses, and/or with other symbols such as key-shapes or lines. Similar signs appear at Altamira Cave, Le Portel Cave in the Ariege, Les Trois Freres Cave in the Hautes-Pyrenees, and Les Combarelles Cave in the Dordogne.
Polygonal signs. These include
rectangles, pentagonals and hexagonals. Although few in number, at least
one appears in every chamber. For instance, in Gallery A there is a rectangular
symbol reminiscent of another among the Lascaux
Cave paintings in the Dordogne, while in Gallery B there is a grill-shaped
sign similar to others in the caves of Marsoulas and Aguas de Novales.
Although as mentioned above, La Pasiega's Paleolithic art has been assigned broadly to the Solutrean-Magdalenian period, the chronology of the earliest art remains a matter of some debate. In 1913, Breuil, Obermaier and del Rio were of the opinion that there were two phases of Aurignacian art at La Pasiega, dating to perhaps 35,000 BCE. Much later, in 1968, the French paleontologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan (1911-86) published a different analysis, arguing that the earliest art was no older than the Solutrean (c.19,000 BCE). Ten years later, in 1978, the Spanish scientist Joaquin Gonzalez Echegaray (1930-2013) published his own chronological account of La Pasiega, agreeing largely with Leroi-Gourhan. Alas, recent research makes Leroi-Gourhan's analysis look dubious. Furthermore, in 2012, the British scientist Dr. Alistair Pike examined a number of red-ochre dots in the El Castillo cave, using the Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) method, and recorded dates as far back as 39,000 BCE. Given the similarity between the dots at El Castillo and La Pasiega, it is not improbable that they were created at a similar time. Meantime, for a list of the 100 most ancient paintings and sculptures, see: Oldest Stone Age Art.
For more rock art on the Iberian peninsula, see: Coa Valley Engravings.
For Neanderthal engravings in Iberia, see: Gorham's Cave Art, Gibraltar.
For more information about prehistoric cave painting in Spain, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE