7. A Great Cave

So now back to our Tree.

The Earth-mother is typically believed to dwell deep under the ground, where she has her own realm and from which the first people are then held to have emerged in the Beginning via—as would certainly seem logical enough—a cave.

This cave amounts to but a twig on our Tree (see July 28th blog)—but an important one. Just to begin with, not long after people started carving those female figurines that are also discussed in my July 25th blog, they started leaving ritualistic marks and paintings of assorted food animals in uninhabited caves all over southwestern Europe, apparently in the hope that the Earth-mother would notice them and increase the herds accordingly (most of them are so far back in the caves—some as much as nine miles!—that I don’t know who else would notice them!)

Our examination of all that might begin with the story of the first such cave to be entered in modern times—the one that the world has since come to know as Altamira.

Back in 1868, a Spanish nobleman named Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola had a modest estate some two kilometers southwest of the modern village of Santillana del Mar, on the northern slope of the two hundred mile long, east-west Cantabrian Range as it runs along northern Spain’s Biscayne coast.

It had been known for some time that there were caves on Don Marcelino’s property, but no one had ever paid much attention to them until one day that year, a local hunter went looking for his lost dog—and after awhile heard it barking behind some big rocks that turned out to mask a hitherto unknown cave entrance, which he duly reported to Don Marcelino.

Seven years went by, during which Don Marcelino—a jurist by profession—developed an interest in the new study of archaeology; which eventually, in 1875, brought him to dig around in the soil at the mouth of this new cave—where he soon turned up some old bones and flint implements.

A few more trips to the cave over the next four years yielded more such artifacts; until one Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1879, he returned there once again—and this time, was persuaded by his eight year old daughter Maria to let her tag along.

And a good thing, too; because while he was busy digging in the ground, she ventured several feet into the cave itself, looked around and suddenly screamed with great excitement, “Papa, look—toros!” Bulls!

Hurrying inside, Don Marcelino found himself in a small vestibule area that almost immediately gave way to a larger room some twenty-five feet wide and sixty feet long—but less than four feet in height.

That’s where Maria was—and she was pointing with delight at the ceiling. It was full of painted animals—more than a hundred of them—mostly reddish depictions of a long-extinct bison species, in which the painters had taken full advantage of the ceiling’s natural calcium bulges and random contours to make the animals seem three-dimensional.

1. What Maria saw

But then, rendered when? And by whom—perhaps the Roman soldiers that had occupied that part of the Iberian Peninsula some two thousand years before?

Most people who heard about Maria’s discovery thought so; while many of the rest tended to believe that Don Marcelino was either trying to perpetrate some kind of hoax aimed at increasing his standing as an amatuer archaeologist or simply hoping to increase the value of his property.

Don Marcelino himself suspected that the paintings were much older than Spain’s Roman occupation; but realizing that he was still very much a hobbyist, rather than a trained archaeologist, he decided to contact his close friend and archaeological mentor, Professor Juan Vilanova y Piera at the University of Madrid, and ask him to come examine his find.

It took awhile for the two men to explore the entire cave—which turned out to be some nine hundred feet in length, with several twists and bends and a few diverted areas or ‘rooms’ on either side.

Most of the paintings were in the room that Maria had wandered into; but there also turned out to be others, along with a number of animal engravings—mainly along the walls—all the way to the very end of the place.

Besides the hundred or so bison, there were also many reddish horses, a life-size red doe, several smaller does, a stag, and a few wild boar. Twenty-five of the wall paintings were life-size.

2. Wall paintings, Altamira
3. Red deer, Altamira

There were also eight, scattered pictographs depicting animals with human heads and humans with animal heads; plus there were countless outlines of human hands and some fluted finger-marks, especially as one approached the very end of the cave—as though people had wanted to leave some personal evidence of their daring advance to that point—along with, in the same area, some indecipherable symbols.

After carefully examining everything and devoting a great deal of thought to the matter, Vilanova concluded that the paintings had to indeed be more than two or three thousand years old—more like ten or fifteen thousand, in his opinion.

And the following year, he repeated that estimate to his scientific brethren convened in Lisbon for the 1880 Prehistorical Congress.

“Poppycock!” was the immediate reaction of most. Why, not two centuries before, in Dublin, one of the Christian world’s most respected scholars and beloved mentors, Bishop James Ussher, had worked out that God had finished creating the world precisely on Saturday, October 23rd, 4004 B.C. So obviously, the paintings couldn’t be older than that!

Two of France’s leading archaeologists, Gabriel de Mortillet and Emile Cartailhac, especially ridiculed Vilanova’s figure and went so far as to pronounce the paintings forgeries—believing as they did that even the artists of Roman times couldn’t have produced such accurate, lifelike drawings.

And there the matter remained—with the reputations of both Vilanova and Don Marcelino largely ruined—until 1902, fourteen years after the death of Don Marcelino and nine after that of Vilanova, when the archaeological establishment finally admitted its mistake and acknowledged the authenticity of the cave’s paintings; soon followed by Emile Cartailhac’s personal, published mea culpa.

Subsequent investigations using various twentieth century dating methods have established that,

  • The earliest known painting in the cave, some kind of symbol, was executed at least 36,000 years ago.
  • The at least is because the Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) method used to date it can’t yield an exact date, but only a minimum!
  • When applied throughout the whole cave, the U/Th method revealed that most of the paintings were executed during a ten thousand year period, beginning about 35,000 years ago.
  • The most recent paintings dated to only 14,000 years ago. So altogether, they spanned at least twenty-two thousand years—or slightly more than a thousand generations!

And then in 1985, following the work of such scientific luminaries as the French Jesuit priest-anthropologist Henri Brueil and French paleontologists Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Annette Laming and Jean Clottes to bring the wonders of Maria’s discovery to the world at large, the cave was officially declared by UNESCO to be a World Heritage site.

* * *

Since the discovery of Altamira, scientific searches and accidental finds have resulted in the turning up of more than four hundred similar caves spanning all Europe from the Franco-Cantabrian region of southwestern Europe some three thousand miles all the way to to the Russian Urals.

Most of those in the western region are concentrated in three areas: the aforementioned Cantabrian Mountains along northern Spain’s Biscayne coast; on the French side of the Pyrennes, which separate Spain from France at the eastern end of the Cantabrians; and for some reason, within a twenty mile radius of the tiny village of Les Eyzies, in southwestern France—where there’s an unusually high concentration of them.

4. Entrance, Niaux cavern

For instance, two thousand feet up in the French Pyrennes is a cave called Niaux, discovered in 1906. Containing paintings estimated to date from no more than seventeen thousand years ago to as few as thirteen, its entrance alone—a hundred sixty-feet high, and almost as wide—is impressive; but the fact that it runs almost nine miles into the mountain, with about a mile and a quarter devoted entirely to animal depictions, is truly stunning.

As is the fact that for the first five hundred yards or so, there’s no artwork whatsoever; and for the next hundred after that, there are only a few groups of some kind of indecipherable sign painted with red ochre.

Then, more than half a mile from the entrance, one comes upon a broad crossroads area where one may turn left, right, or simply continue on. 

Should one turn left here and walk another quarter mile or so up this narrower alley, one will come upon a huge room some twenty-five yards wide where the walls are literally packed with bison, horses, ibex, and other such animals.

If one chooses instead to continue along the main corridor, indeed one will find animal depictions throughout the entire rest of the cave—a wonder in itself! Just think about that for moment: people with no flashlight—much less some kind of map covering all the different forks, corridors, side-corridors, and even multiple levels that at every turn in such cavernous places threaten to lead one dangerously far astray—entered this place again and again, bearing torches that could die out at any time, a few crude pigments and probably some thick hide swabs, and actually passed to the very end of this nine mile cavern—to do what?

Create some kind of public art gallery, as one nitwit has suggested? Paint something just because they could, for their own amusement? Then why no girls, heroes, flowers, trees, landscapes? Why only animals, and almost always edible animals—bearing in mind, I can tell you from experience that both horse meat and bear meat are perfectly edible and even tasty when prepared properly; while of course, every animal, even a mountain lion, is on the menu if you’re hungry enough.

5. Bison, ibex, Niaux
6. Horses, bison, deer, Niaux
7. Ibex, Niaux

Curiously, as with every other painted cave save only Altamira—where people are found to have lived at the very entrance—there’s absolutely no evidence that the artists ever inhabited this vast place; rather, they left clear traces of having lived in a nearby, deep rock shelter known today as Grotte de la Roche.

* * *

And then there’s Rouffignac, again in France. Discovered in 1956, this cave is ‘only’ five miles long; but its fifteen thousand year-old depictions include more than one hundred twenty wooly mammoths, twenty-five bison, twenty-two ibex, fifteen horses, ten wooly rhinoceros, and a cave bear.

8. Wooly mammoth, ibex, Rouffignac
9. Woolly rhinoceros, Rouffignac
10. Horse, Rouffignac

* * *

And Pech-Merle, discovered in 1922; about a mile and a quarter, over two levels; features seventy animals, including twenty-eight mammoths, some spotted horses, and another bear. Most of its artwork is found to date from twenty-seven thousand years ago, but at least some would appear to date from only eighteen.

11. Wooly mammoth, Pech-Merle
12. Spotted horses, Pech-Merle
13. Handprints, Pech-Merle

* * *

Les Combarelles, discovered in 1901. About a half-mile long, with some eight hundred paintings and engravings of reindeer, mammoths, bears, would you believe a mountain lion, and numerous indecipherable signs. Most artwork about twelve thousand years old.

14. Running bison, Les Combarelles
15. Deer engraving, Les Combarelles
16. Lion engraving, Les Combarelles

* * *

Lascaux, discovered in 1940. A mere hundred sixty-seven yards in length, but then sixty-six feet wide and seventeen high; walls and ceilings crammed with something like six hundred paintings and fifteen hundred engravings of food animals executed some seventeen thousand years ago—mainly horses, but also stags and bulls, including one fully seventeen feet long!

17. Cattle, horses deer, Lascaux
18. Reindeer, Lascaux
19. Ceiling paintings too, Lascaux
20. Swimming deer, Lascaux
21. Hunting scene, Lascaux 
22. Bull goring bird-faced man (priest?), Lascaux

* * *

Cougnac, discovered in 1962. Contains three different galleries of paintings, with the longest and most important one being three hundred thirty feet long, about twenty-seven wide, and ten to twenty feel high. The main chamber, where most of the paintings are, lies at the very end of the cave and contains some sixty drawings of mammoths, goats, and deer, all in red. Most paintings estimated to have been executed some twenty-five thousand years ago; while the rest, as but fourteen.

23. Ibexes, Cougnac
24. Three megaloceros and Ibex, Cougnac
25. Ibex, Cougnac

* * *

Font-de-Gaume, discovered in 1901. Main gallery a hundred forty-two yards; contains over two hundred paintings estimated to be about eighteen thousand years old, including some eighty bison, forty horses, more than twenty mammoths, plus a wooly rhinoceros, some reindeer and ibex, a cave bear—and a lion.

26. Horses, cattle, Font-de-Gaume
27. Bison, Font-de-Gaume
28. Wooly mammoth, Font-de-Gaume

* * *

On to Chauvet, discovered in 1994; more than four hundred yards filled with hundreds of paintings, but while many are of the usual food animals, this cave also depicts a whole pack of mountain lions! Go figure. All paintings here are about thirty thousand years old.

29. Panel of lions, Chauvet
30. Bear, Chauvet 
31. Rhinoceros, Chauvet 
32. Horses, Chauvet 
33. Megaloceros, Chauvet 
34. Miscellaneous animals, Chauvet

* * *

And now returning to Spain, La Pasiega, 1911. Total length of this fairly recent Cantabrian find, a hundred forty yards, with paintings at almost every step along the way; main gallery itself eighty yards long, plus there are several secondary galleries; contains more paintings than any cave yet turned up on the Iberian Peninsula, with more than seven hundred depictions of deer, ibex, horses, reindeer, and mammoths. Paintings believed to be about fourteen thousand years old.

35. Horse, La Pasiega
36. Horses, La Pasiega
37. Horse, La Pasiega

* * *

And nearby La Pileta, discovered in 1905. Longest gallery, three hundred eighy-two yards; four hundred paintings and engravings, including abstract signs, horses, ibexes, bulls, aurochs, goats—and at the very end of the cave, a five foot long fish, possibly a halibut! Some of the larger paintings are estimated to be at least twenty thousand years old.

38. Horse, La Pileta
39. Fish, La Pileta

And finally here, El Castillo, 1903; slightly more than half a mile in length, contains about two hundred fifty paintings, reportedly including the world oldest cave art turned up as of this writing—a mysterious, forty thousand year old big red dot.

40. Bison, El Castillo
41: Burros, El Castillo
42. Wall scene, El Castillo
43. Indecipherable signs, El Castillo

And in some of these caves, they also depicted Her (see July 25th blog)—perhaps the most famous being the aforementioned, eighteen inch bas relief again shown below.

44. Woman of Laussel

From a rock shelter called Abri de Laussel, in southwestern France, she’s depicted naked, with a bison horn in one hand while her other calls attention to her abdomen, or womb. Her large breasts are prominently displayed, as is her vulva; while her head—faceless—is turned toward the bison horn. 

And once again, as with so many portable representations of her from that age and region, her figure bears traces of red ochre.

Indeed, at Abri Castanet, La Ferraisse, and a few other sites along the Vezere and Dordogne Rivers in southern France, some artists didn’t even bother depicting her full figure, but simply reduced it to its barest essential: her ‘birthing organ’ or vulva—often incised so deeply into the wall that it almost seem to have been sculpted out of it.

45. Engraved vulva, La Ferrassie, France
46. Engraved vulvas, La Ferraisse, France
47. Engraved vulva, Abri Castanet, France
48. Engraved vulvas, Abri Castanet, France 
49. Engraved vulvas, Abri Blanchard, France
50. Engraved vulva, Roc-aux-Sorciers, France 



Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, 2 vol., ed. Maria Leach, 1949

Wikipedia, List of Stone Age Art https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Stone_Age_art

Wikipedia, Cave Painting https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_painting

Wikipedia, Cave of Altamira https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_of_Altamira

Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/art/cave-painting

Photo Credits

1: Ice Age Europe https://www.ice-age-europe.eu/visit-us/network-members/museum-of-altamira.html

2: My Modern Met https://mymodernmet.com/altamira-cave-paintings/

3: Bradshaw Foundation https://www.bradshawfoundation.com/spain/altamira/cave_art/index.php

4: Decouvertes http://decouvertes.fr/content/cave-niaux-0

5: Frommer’s https://www.frommers.com/trip-ideas/arts-and-culture/how-to-see-the-drawings-of-frances-niaux-cave-for-yourself

6: Don’s Maps https://www.donsmaps.com/niauxgalleries.html

7: Mountains and Rivers https://mountainsriversdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/p10502731.jpg

8: Day of Archaeology https://www.dayofarchaeology.com/the-cave-of-the-hundred-mammoths/

9: Bradford Foundation https://www.bradshawfoundation.com/france/rouffignac/index.php

10: Don’s Maps https://donsmaps.com/images19/horsepainting.jpg

11: Art History Worlds https://www.pinterest.com/pin/36662184442092418/?lp=true

12: : Bradford Foundation http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/news/cave_art_paintings.php?id=The-Horses-of-Pech-Merle

13: La Voz de Coahuila http://periodicolavoz.com.mx/artistas-prehistoricos-podrian-haber-sido-mujeres-estudio/

14: Allwood Courier http://allwoodc.com/courier/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Lascaux_2_bison.gif

15: Hominidés https://www.hominides.com/html/lieux/grotte-combarelles.php

16: Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/les-combarelles-cave.htm

17: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/pin/1618549838388710/?lp=true

18: ResearchGate https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Cave-Paintings-in-Lascaux-caves-France_fig2_304616267

19: Paleolithic and Neolithic History http://paleolithic-neolithic.com/overview/lascaux/

20: ResearchGate https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Five-deer-heads-in-the-Nave-region-of-Lascaux-cave-that-might-represent-a-single-deer-at_fig1_329355092

21: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/pin/44332377552969191/?lp=true

22: Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/lascaux-cave-paintings.htm

23: Grottes Prehistoriques de Cougnac http://www.grottes-en-france.com/en/grottes/cougnac.html

24: Don’s Maps https://donsmaps.com/images20/megacerosfrieze.jpg

25: Don’s Maps https://donsmaps.com/images20/cougnacibex2.jpg

26: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/559431584944187972/?lp=true

27: DordogneMaison: https://www.dordognemaison.com/en/grotte-de-font-de-gaume

28: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.co.uk/lucyjeal/font-de-gaume/

29: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/pin/152418768622973041/?lp=true

30: Bradshaw Foundation http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet/red_bears.php

31: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/asotoroxx/chauvet-cave/

32: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.co.uk/amp/pin/495677502722237230/

33: Bradshaw Foundation http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/chauvet/chauvet_cave_paintings.php

34: National Public Radio https://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2015/05/07/404889280/france-s-fake-prehistoric-cave-art-the-real-thing

35: Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/pasiega-cave.htm

36: Song of the Caves https://songsofthecaves.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/img_0108.jpg

37: Song of the Caves https://songsofthecaves.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/img_0102.jpg

38: Disputación de Málaga https://www.malaga.es/en/turismo/naturaleza/lis_cd-1691/cueva-pileta

39: The Outline https://theoutline.com/post/2209/what-the-caves-are-trying-to-tell-us?zd=1&zi=kcovnjuw

40: BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-18449711

41: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/billyclaire/el-castillo-cave-spain-cave-art/

42: Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_of_El_Castillo

43: Don’s Maps https://www.donsmaps.com/castillo.html

44: Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_of_Laussel

45: Don’s Maps https://www.donsmaps.com/ferrassie.html

46: Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Ferrassie

47: Live Science https://www.livescience.com/20278-gallery-europe-oldest-rock-art.html

48: Don’s Maps https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Engraved-limestone-block-60-cm-long-from-the-Aurignacian-of-Abri-Cellier-Dordogne_fig12_276033483

49: Don’s Maps https://www.donsmaps.com/images12/castelmerlevulvas.jpg

50: Don’s Maps https://www.donsmaps.com/images26/venus4rocauxsorciers.jpg

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