Exploring Northern Spain: The Painted Caves of Cantabria

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

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Cave paintings – they are history, art and exploration all rolled into one sweet package. How could we come to northern Spain and not check out some of their painted caves?

First up, the star of northern Spain’s painted caves – Altamira.

Cave painting of Northern Spain

 

The Cave of Altamira

Altamira has an intriguing history – in addition to the prehistoric paintings dating back some 14,000 years.

This painted cave is 30 kilometres (19 miles) west of Santander on the northern coast of Spain, in the province of Cantabria. A roof collapse blocked the entrance 13,000 years ago, sealing off the paintings inside. In 1868, a hunter stumbled across the treasure. Eight years later, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola saw the cave for the first time.

An amateur archaeologist, Sanz de Sautuola returned to excavate the entrance to the cave. During one of his visits, his daughter Maria found paintings of bison on the ceiling of a side chamber.

Nobody believed that the paintings were paleolithic art. After 20 years of controversy about their status, the authentic nature of the Altamira paintings was recognized in 1902. Archaeologists discovered engraved animal bones in subsequent digs. One of these carved bones dated to 14,480 years ago.

Maria’s chamber contains most of the paintings. There are red hematite and black charcoal bison images, horses, and a doe – which at 2.5 metres (8.2 feet) is the biggest painting in the collection. Altamira was finally designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 – more than 100 years after its discovery.

After Altamira, everything is decadence.” – Picasso stating his belief that in Altamira, art had reached maturity.

Neo-Cave

On one hand, a visit to Altamira is exciting. On the other, it is a mixed bag. The original painted cave closed in 2001 to protect the art. Understandable. Altamira Museum’s Neo-Cave is a replica of the 270-metre (885 feet) long cave and its paintings.

We purchased our entrance tickets and at the same time were given a spot on a cave tour. Touring the museum during the wait, we had time to learn more about the painting process and techniques.

Cave painting
Example of a charcoal outline. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The image is complete. (Photo: Brad Kopp)
The reconstructed Altamira cave is a carefully crafted exhibition. Every detail of the cave paintings is faithfully replicated. But the fact that it is climate-controlled, it has no loose stones or pointed outcrops or low ceiling dips to avoid, and that there are not even faint sounds of dripping water makes it all seem a bit soulless. Even though it’s perfect, it’s kind of like looking at a good forgery of a masterpiece.

Beyond Altamira

Seventeen painted caves now make up the UNESCO designated Paleolithic Cave Art of the Cantabrian Coast. These include caves in Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country.

There are seven painted caves in the province of Cantabria: Chufín, El Castillo, Las Monedas, El Pendo, Cullalvera, Covalanas and Hornos de la Peña. Because many of the sites are only open Tuesdays to Sundays, timing is key. We lucked out with visits to El Castillo and Las Monedas – both part of the Monte Castillo cave complex near Puente Viesgo.

Monte El Castillo is riddled with caves; only four of them have paintings. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Cueva El Castillo

King of the castle, archaeological excavations date the use of this cave back 150,000 years. Cuevo El Castillo was re-discovered in 1903.

The tour starts in the museum and walks under the protective roof to the rubble left from the archaeological digs before entering the cave. A real cave! And there are more than 275 different example of Paleolithic art in its dark recesses. Now this is what I was looking forward to experiencing.

Puntas – or dots – are a common art form in the cave. There are over 300 dots between the entrance and the end of the cave paintings. Why were they put there? It seems like a obvious question. Sadly, there is no obvious answer.

In addition to the dots, there are paintings of horses, bison, does, aurochs, stags, goats and a mammoth. Dozens of 40,000-year-old handprints mark the inner walls of the cave. Who left them here? What do they symbolize?

My mind is abuzz with thoughts and images and questions – oh, so many questions.

Protected painted cave entrance
Painted caves are protected on Monte El Castillo; entrance by guided tour only. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

Cueva Las Monedas

In 1952 Cueva Las Monedas’ existence came into the light, along with its 12,000-year-old artwork. The cave itself is the longest cave in Monte El Castillo – stretching 800 metres (more than 2600 feet) from the entrance.

The paintings themselves are interesting, but it’s the story of the 23 Spanish coins dating back to the 16th century that really sparks the imagination.

When were the coins left in Cueva Las Monedas? Who left them? And why?

Maybe I’ll never find the answers to all the questions these painted caves bring about. Then again, if it means taking another trip back to northern Spain to continue the quest, I could live with that!

When You Go:

We stayed at the Hotel Villa Arce just outside of Puente Viesgo. In good weather, it has a view of Monte El Castillo.

Be sure to book ahead of time as painted caves are popular tours.

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Baja’s Cave Paintings: Cueva de las Flechas

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Deep in the heart of Arroyo de San Pablo lies – in our opinion – lies one of the most intriguing painted rock art panels in all of Baja’s Sierra de San Francisco’s UNESCO World Heritage Site.

View from Cueva Pintada across Arroyo de San Pablo to Cueva de las Flechas. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

While not as grand and copious in quantity as Cueva Pintada across the canyon, several of the images in Cueva de las Flechas (Cave of the Arrows) stand apart from those found elsewhere.

 

 

As the name suggests – Cave of the Arrows – there are numerous images of animals with arrows in their bodies.

The suggestion of movement is implied by painting two or more images in succession. Each subsequent image is painted at a slightly different angle to show progression.

Outlined rabbits and arrows – incomplete work or artist choice? (Photo: Brad Kopp)

These rabbits (conejos) demonstrate movement and are outlined but not painted. Was this done on purpose or are they incomplete images? Only the artist knows.

What really draws the eye in Cueva de las Flechas are the large monos (drawings of human figures). If you study them closely, unique details stand out.

Unique monos found in Cueva de las Flechas. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The two figures on the left and centre (of the group of four) have tiny figures upside down on their shoulders. These tiny figures include animals such as deer (venado) and possibly a turtle (tortuga) as well as monos.

The headdresses on three of the large monos are also finely drawn and rare in the rock art found throughout the canyon.

The central figure and one on the right are impaled by arrows. The arrowheads drawn on the central mono are similar to obsidian (black, volcanic glass) points found in the area.

Hands are painted as if they are held high in surrender.

Rabbit figure at foot of mono. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The black and red mono to left of centre has another distinct small rabbit painted at the foot. Is it a spirit animal or totem? The more you look, the more questions that arise. We laid back on the wooden walkway and let our minds wander.

While the exact meaning of this panel is unknown, it is thought that it could commemorate a battle and could indicate a territorial border between different tribes.

As well, in early hunter-gatherer societies such as this, shamans used the representation of death to symbolize a trance-induced supernatural journey.

Which do you choose to believe?

Read More: Baja’s Cave Paintings: An Overview and Baja’s Cave Painting: Cueva Pintada

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Baja’s Cave Paintings: Cueva Pintada

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

Scrambling down small cliffs and hopping over boulders on our way to visit Cueva Pintada in Baja’s Sierra Nevada, our guide –  Mauricio Zuniga Arce – navigated the desert canyon nimbly in smooth-soled cowboy boots.

He carried nothing more than a water canteen, a machete, and a lariat.

Part of our guide’s kit for exploring cave paintings in Baja’s Sierra de San Francisco. (Photo: Megan Kopp)

Noteworthy: Our guide carried little during the day because it was our responsibility, on a self-arranged trip, to provide food. Good food – and lots of it – makes for a happy guide!

Packs on backs (loaded with food), hiking shoes on feet, we scrambled to keep up with Mauricio on the short slopes out of the verdant, palm tree lined, Arroyo de San Pablo.

We had one thought on our minds – besides making it unscathed – the great murals of Cueva Pintada.

Cueva Pintada

Cueva simple means cave in Spanish. Pintada means painted.

There are hundreds of painted rock shelters in Baja’s Sierra de San Francisco UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cueva Pintada is one of the best.

This great mural is one of the most heavily painted in the most painted part of the canyon.

It’s a view that never gets old – even after more than 36 years of guiding. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

The approximately 150-metre (500 ft) long rocky recess of Cueva Pintada holds hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of overpainted images.

Although the cave is not deep, maybe 12 metres (40 ft) at most, it provided a multitude of well-protected surfaces for the ancient artists to work.

There are images of deer (in Spanish, venado), sheep (borrego), rabbits (conejo), men (hombres), and women (mujeres).

Marine species figure prominently in many panels. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

One of the largest figures in the cave is that of what is thought to be possibly a whale (ballena) or sea lion (león marino). There are also numerous images of fish (pescado). Notably, the ocean is hundreds of kilometres (more than 100 mi) away if you were to follow the drainage to the sea.

Superimposing one image on top of another, on top of yet another, was commonplace.

What the images really mean – and why they were painted in these locations – is up for interpretation.

Turkey vultures stand out clearly in this painted panel. (Photo: Brad Kopp)

In his book, The Cave Paintings of Baja California, Harry Crosby suggests that that act of painting was more valuable than preserving the visibility of each individual image.

We agree with Harry.

The muddled artwork we see today is as wildly confusing as it is thought-provoking and perfect.

Read more: Baja’s Cave Paintings: An Overview 
Next up: Cuevas de las Flechas

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Baja’s Cave Paintings: An Overview

WRITTEN BY: MEGAN KOPP

When friends suggested a mule-supported camping trip to explore the over 2000-year-old rock art in the isolated, sparsely populated region of Baja’s Sierra de San Francisco, we had just one question.

When?

We didn’t ask how long it would take to travel there.

We didn’t know the laughs hiring a Spanish-speaking guide would bring when forced to rely on our own limited Spanish language skills.

We didn’t think about the reality of being perched on a mule while descending a rocky, narrow path into the depths of a desert canyon.

We just knew that visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site was going to be an adventure.

Rock Paintings of Sierra de San Francisco

In the neighbourhood of 400 painted rock shelters and caves can be found in the heart of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

They include recognizable images – or pictographs – of humans, animals such as mountain lions, bighorn sheep, whales, turtles, fish, and birds, bows and arrows, and countless abstract forms.

Long panels sometimes hold hundreds of pictographs, layered one on top of another.

The well-preserved paintings linger on cave walls and roofs, boldly expressed in red, yellow, black and white.

All of these elements illustrate the relationship of humans to their environment.

Images in Cueva Pintada (Painted Cave). Photo: Brad Kopp

Discovery

Before the arrival of the Spanish, this territory belonged to the Guachimis – also referred to as the Cochimi.

Little is known of the early hunter-gatherers who expressed their thoughts through art on these walls.

The existence of these paintings remained unknown to the outside world until a Jesuit missionary, Francisco Javier Clavijero, reported the paintings to Rome in 1789.

Dutch and French scholars studied the art in late 1800s.

Numerous 20th century investigations were carried out by professional archaeologists, anthropologists, and amateurs alike.

American writers Stanley Gardner (creator of the Perry Mason detective stories) and Harry Crosby (author of The Cave Paintings of Baja California: Discovering the Great Murals of an Unknown People) explored the region – Gardner in the mid-1940s and Crosby from the 1970s.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

The rock art in Sierra de San Francisco dates from around 100 B.C. to A.D. 1300.

In 1993, over 182,000 hectares of land in this mountainous region in the heart of Baja was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, helping to protect this fragile treasure.

Entrance to INAH office in San Ignacio, Baja. Photo: Brad Kopp

If You Go

Self-organized trips can be arranged in San Ignacio, where the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) has a small museum and office. There are also organized tour companies such as Sea Kayak Adventures, Inc.

Read More: Cueva Pintada and Cueva de las Flechas

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