Ancient Art Found in Basque Country Changes Understanding of Prehistoric Society

Very faded but finally noticed, the Basque region cave paintings show that distinct Paleolithic cultures survived cheek by jowl for millennia

The crude red outline and interior color wash is typical of pre-Magdalenian Paleolithic art, over 20,000 years old
B. Ochoa / M. García-Diez / I. Vigiola

Spain and France are hot spots of Paleolithic sites and art going back thousands and tens of thousands of years. On the other hand, the enigmatic Basque Country, which straddles the border between those two countries, was considered to be a graphic void. There were plenty of Stone Age sites there, where prehistoric peoples had clearly lived, but art had only been found in a measly six caves.

Thus, the full extent of ancient art in Basque Country just hadn’t been noticed, argue authors Blanca Ochoa of the Universidad del Pais Vasco in Spain, with fellow archaeologists Marcos García-Diez and Irene Vigiola-Toña, in a recent paper in the journal Antiquity, describing in exquisite detail the newly discovered parietal pictures in Danbolinzulo Cave.

In fact in recent years archaeologists equipped with sophisticated methodological means have discovered 17 previously unnoticed sites in the Basque region that have art from the late Palaeolithic period, some of which may be as old as 40,000 years. The finds debunk the void theory and bring the total known Stone Age graphic sites there to 23, Ochoa confirms in conversation with Haaretz.

Danbolinzulo Cave, which lies on the slopes of Mount Ertxiña by the town of Zestoa in northern Spain, has a dazzling view of the surrounding area, the archaeologists enthuse.

Vive la difference

Analyzing the faint, eroded images at Danbolinzulo within the broader context of prehistoric art in Spain and France, the authors hypothesize that in the pre-Magdalenian period, from 40,000 to 20,000 years ago, the local hunter-gatherer populations maintained two distinct artistic cultures. We can call them, for simplicity’s sake, Iberian and French/Continental.

In the later Magdalenian period, from 20,000 to 13,000 years ago, the distinctions between these two cultural realms vanished. But before the great convergence, the Basque region, far from being a void, seems to have been a pivotal zone, occupied by people from both sides of the Pyrenees living cheek by jowl. Yet, for whatever reason, each cave site in the region seems to have just one style of rock painting.

The style in Danbolinzulo Cave is Iberian, although the cave is near the postulated “border” between the prehistoric Iberian and French/Continental populations, Ochoa explains to Haaretz. A different pre-Magdalenian cave in Basque Country that’s now under archaeological investigation seems to be French/Continental-style, she notes.

The French style: Prehistoric Cave Art of Niaux Hane Laso, YouTube

The odd thing is that the pre-Magdalenian hunter-gatherers (again, 40,000 to 20,000 years ago) roamed just as much as any humans, and humans certainly have wanderlust. The Iberian and Continental prehistoric peoples were quite clearly in contact.

The fact that differing artistic styles were found among peoples that did rub shoulders with one another throughout thousands of years is a mystery, Ochoa says. “We think maybe that they have different cultural backgrounds. But we don’t know why they chose to have two very distinct styles,” she adds.

If we think about it, “modern” art in Europe, Central Asia, the Near East, India and the Far East all maintained substantive differences over long centuries, during which the cultures were very much in touch. So that could make sense.

“During the Magdalenian period, there was one style from the south of France all the way to the north of Spain,” Ochoa explains - which can be taken as proof of the establishment of cultural relations.

Why before that period, the two styles had been distinct, we cannot know: One striking difference is the discovery of figurines (which Ochoa calls “portable art”) in the French-Continental cultural context, although none have been found in the Iberian region.

Paleolithic art site in Danbolinzulo in the Basque Country
B. Ochoa / M. García-Diez / I. Vigiola

Mysterious graphic void

Today Basque Country is famous for the mysterious origin of its language, which, while in the heart of Indo-Aryan cultures, is categorically unrelated to Indo-Aryan. Recent thinking is that the “language isolate” doesn’t actually date to the Neolithic era as has been romantically proposed, but is still remarkably ancient – possibly originating in  the North Caucasus over 9,000 years ago, and/or a remnant of early farmers in Europe (around 5-7,000 years ago). The preservation of their unique language over millennia is ascribed to the Basques’ isolation.

In earlier times, however, even predating the ancestral farmers, the Basque region was prime real estate and was peopled throughout most human history in the continent. The region has a large number of late Stone Age sites.

That is why archaeologists had been puzzled at the seeming graphic void in the Basque Country other than at the six sites, including the famed Ekain Cave, Alkerdi, and Atxurra. But the art had been there all along, it was just in a parlous state.

At Danbolinzulo, for example, it was clear that the cavern, a nice roomy one, had been inhabited for many thousands of years. Members of the local Antxieta Arkeologi who initially explored the site found pottery and animal remains from the Chalcolithic and Bronze ages. But it was only when the experts returned in 2014 that the faint depictions on the wall were noticed, 34 years after the cave’s initial discovery.

Some of the art in Danbolinzulo is acephalic, some can only be identified by their horns
B. Ochoa / M. García-Diez / I. Vigiola

Some of these ancient drawings are so faded and eroded that it’s hard to tell what they represent, if anything. There may well be more prehistoric art in this and the other Basque cave that we just can’t see any more.

Headless animals

The discoveries at Danbolinzulo were a breakthrough partly because, of the 23 cave-art sites discovered in the Basque region so far, few are pre-Magdalenian, and thus the dating at this site was far from trivial. The paintings could not be dated directly because they were drawn using inorganic paint that can’t be radiocarbon dated, and have been exposed to the elements since their creation.

So, absent radiocarbon dating, the authors had to date the art at Danbolinzulo by comparing its style and execution with known sites.

Although in many cases the subjects of the art were hard to identify, their style is clearly homogenous and typical of the pre-Magdalenian Iberian period. It is hard to tell whether all the pictures were created within a short period or over a long time, but all of them obviously incorporate the same graphic-cultural tradition, the archaeologists say. Stylistically, those motifs that could be identified – five ibex, two horses and a possible person, as well as several unidentified figures – are crudely outlined in red and some are filled in with a color wash, a technique typical of pre-Magdalenian art.

Artists in the later Magdelian period, 20,000 to 13,000 years ago, shifted to black pigment – chiefly charcoal (which can be radiocarbon dated). Also, several of the Danbolinzulo pictures were covered by calcite, strongly supporting the conclusion that they were created during the Paleolithic era.

At least one animal’s outline wasn’t drawn as a line but as dots, reminiscent of a painting of a horse with dots that was discovered in Spain's Altamira Cave which is dated to before 22,000 years ago. As for the anthropomorphic figure in the Danbolinzulo cave, it resembles a representation in Spain's Tito Bustillo Cave, dated to earlier than 35,500 years ago.

Stunning cave art in AltamiraMuseo de Altamira, YouTube

Also, the Danbolinzulo animals are disproportionate: Almost half are represented with the limbs in a frontal view and the body in profile – a characteristic also found in the Parpalló Cave in Spain, which features art spanning a period of 26,000 to 11,000 years ago, done in black, red and yellow.

Chillingly, some animals discovered at the Danbolinzulo site may have been drawn without heads. This acephaly might be less artistic choice and more poor preservation, the authors note, but it isn’t unique to this cave.

The bottom line is that the Danbolinzulo Cave is the site closest to France that features the prehistoric Iberian style – but why it does is still a mystery. It could be that for all the movement of hunter-gatherers, in the Basque Country as well, the two cultures were not communicating. Or maybe, the archaeologists suggest, the difference in artistic styles served to reinforce cultural identity in this mountainous border zone.