La Pileta Cave Art (c.18,000 BCE)
La Pileta Cave (Cueva de la Pileta) is a Paleolithic cave situated in the Province of Malaga, Andalucia, Southern Spain, which is noted for its range of prehistoric art, including abstract symbols and animal paintings, notably a drawing of a giant fish. The oldest art in the cave has been assigned to the Solutrean period of Paleolithic art, about 18,000 BCE, but it may be even older. This is because - although originally a Neanderthal shelter - La Pileta was occupied by modern man from about 25,000 BCE. And since modern man had already been responsible for a huge amount of art in northern Spain, such as the El Castillo Cave paintings (from 39,000 BCE) and the Altamira Cave paintings (from 34,000 BCE), it is reasonable to expect that they would have continued painting when they arrived in Malaga. However, perhaps because it lies outside the region of Franco-Cantabrian cave art - Pileta does not seem to have attracted the scientific attention it deserves, and its 2-kilometre network of galleries, passageways and chasms remains relatively unexplored and uncatalogued. See also the Tito Bustillo Cave (14,000 BCE) in the Asturias. To see how the rock paintings at La Pileta fit into the evolution of ancient art around the world, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 2.5 million BCE).
La Pileta Cave is located in the mountainous limestone terrain of the Serrania de Ronda, in the municipality of Benaojan. First human settlement in the area dates back to 250,000 BCE, when Homo heidelbergensis hunter-gatherers groups began using transverse valleys of the Sierra Betica to roam between coastal and inland Andalucia. During the mid-Mousterian (300,000-30,000 BCE) these early humans were displaced by Neanderthals, who in turn were displaced by modern man about 25,000 BCE. The moderns remained until the era of Neolithic Art, about 2,000 BCE.
La Pileta Cave was discovered in 1905 by Jose Bullon Lobato, the grandfather of the current owners, while he was searching for bat guano to fertilize his land. However, the cave's rock art was first discovered and examined in 1911, by local historian Colonel W. Verner. Verner's report attracted the attention of the renowned archeologist and anthropologist Abbe Henri Breuil (1877-1961), who spent two months at the cave examining its parietal art, and managing in the process to identify some fifty drawings. Hugo Obermaier (1877-1946), the distinguished prehistorian and anthropologist, also examined the cave.
In 1924, Lobato's son uncovered a new entrance to the cave (the one used today) and later succeeded in discovering a previously unknown passageway that led to several new galleries (Las Galerias Neuvas), and the Great Chasm - a deep divide located at the end of the 350-metre "Fish Chamber".
In 1978, archeologists re-examined the Stone Age art in the newly discovered galleries. They identified some 134 images, although most of the pictographs and petroglyphs found by Breuil were now covered by flowstone and thus unidentifiable.
The cave art includes some 400 instances of cave painting and rock engravings, divided between animal figures and abstract symbols, while one or two hand stencils have also been identified. (On the whole, the variety of art is similar to that of La Pasiega Cave (18,000 BCE), located in northern Spain.) About threequarters of the images postdate the Ice Age, the most recent of them being assigned to the second millennium BCE. The remainder are ascribed to the Upper Palaeolithic, including roughly 60 animal figures and some 50 serpentiforms, spirals, zig-zag, criss-cross lines, meanders and other geometric motifs. Judging by the superimpositions on the walls, the yellow paintings are the oldest, followed by the red and then the black charcoal drawings.
Among the animal paintings are pictures of horses, goats, bulls and ibexes - painted in brilliant yellow, red, orange, white and black - a number of which have been drawn with the finger. One particular ibex, drawn in black, was deliberately positioned so that it can be viewed through a natural hole in the rock. There are also some hunting scenes populated by human stick figures with raised spears.
At the end of the longest gallery in the deepest part of the cave, is the "Fish Chamber", which is dominated by Pileta's most famous drawing: a large black fish (thought to be a halibut), about 5 feet (1.5m) in length, with what appears to be the outline of a seal inside it.
Also found at La Pileta are a number of corral-shaped signs, consisting of an oval or circular design with series of finger marks inside, together with several short lines sticking out of the edges. There is no particular reason to believe that they do indeed depict corrals. Anthropologists have so far failed to identify the meaning of these strange signs.
Lastly, in a small chamber, known as "The Sanctuary", there are several charcoal drawings of aurochs and horses, marked with pairs of lines painted in red and black, which are very similar to the short bars found at Cougnac Cave (Grotte de Cougnac) in the Lot region, dating to 23,000 BCE.
The dating of La Pileta Cave art remains a matter of debate. Few radiocarbon dating tests have so far been carried out on the wall paintings, which means that most dating has been done indirectly on the basis of stylistic comparison with imagery in other Spanish caves. [Note: One recent radiocarbon test of charcoal taken from a drawing of one of the aurochs in The Sanctuary, gave a date of 18,130 BCE.] Relying on this analysis, archeologists believe that the earliest art in the cave was created during the era of Solutrean art (20,000-15,000 BCE), though some of it might belong to the preceding period of Gravettian art (25,000-20,000 BCE). The remaining Upper Paleolithic works are assigned to Magdalenian art, created during the period 15,000-10,000 BCE.
For other prehistoric art in Iberia, see: Coa Valley Engravings, Portugal.
For Neanderthal rock engravings in Iberia, see: Gorham's Cave Art, Gibraltar.
For Stone Age sculpture, see: Venus Figurines across Europe.
For more about Stone Age cave painting in Spain, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE