Bison Engravings in Spanish Cave Reveal Common Art Culture Across Europe

Photograph and tracing of horse B.II.1, engraved on the right-hand wall in Aitzbitarte Cave III (O. Rivero and D. Garate / PLOS ONE, CC BY)

(CN) — Researchers have discovered never-before-seen rock art hidden in the caves of northern Spain, filling in some previous blanks about Paleolithic humans and confirming that a cultural art style was used widely throughout what is now Europe approximately 25,000 years ago.

In a study published Wednesday in the open access journal PLOS ONE, lead author and archaeologist Diego Garate of the Instituto Internacional de Investigaciones Prehistóricas de Cantabria, Spain, and his colleagues compared these impressive art galleries to other cave drawings from all around Europe and found significant similarities.

“The study analyzes the particularities of Paleolithic animal engravings found in the Aitzbitarte Caves (Basque Country, Spain) in 2016. These prehistoric images, mainly depicting bison, were drawn in a way that has never before been seen in northern Spain; in a kind of fashion in the way of drawing the engravings that is more characteristic of southern France and some parts of the Mediterranean,” Garate said in a statement accompanying the study.

“The study has shown the close regional relationships in Western Europe cave art since very early times, at least 25,000 years ago,” he continued.

Ancient human art comes in all different forms and differs vastly from region to region, and new examples are constantly being found and rewriting history as we understand it. For example, in 2015 a survey team discovered a series of cave art in the eastern Cantabrian region north of the Iberian Peninsula. These well-traversed cave systems were found to hold a plethora of untouched art after a team of cave specialists and archaeologists combed through once again with more technologically advanced resources.

Among these findings were impressive rock art engravings hidden within a cave system in the Aitzbitarte Hill in northern Spain. This limestone hill has undergone significant karst erosion and as a result, caves that are many thousands of years old exist throughout. The art found throughout three of these caves consisted of a variety of animals, mostly bison, depicted in an art form unlike other artistic styles found in the Iberian Peninsula. 

The engravings were difficult to observe due to the treacherous geography and condition of the walls, so the team used a technique called grazing lighting which allowed them to see the engravings in a rough digital rendering. It depicted the horns and legs in a fascinating style, in an incorrect perspective with each pair of limbs visible in a “double Y,” and the horns placed together with lines in between. Because of their uniqueness, the authors sought to find any similar counterparts, and compared the cave paintings to other styles common throughout Europe.

After thorough analysis, the authors found that identical art styles existed within caves in southwest France from the Gravettian era. They suggest that the newly discovered art was intentionally done in the style of the Gravettian culture, referring to paleolithic hunter-gatherers who lived throughout what is now Europe around 34,000 to 24,000 years ago.

The Gravettian lifestyle is believed to have revolved around adapting to the harsh, cold climate of Europe at the time and its people are characterized geographically. In the west, Gravettians lived in caves; in the east, they lived in the open and were expert hunters. Regardless of the region, they are characterized by their hunting and utilization of animals, their organized burial rituals, and their art.

They are survived by their extensive cave art, their portable clay ‘Venus’ female figurines and some jewelry.

While archaeologists have found Gravettians lived across what are now France and Britain, this is the first evidence of them residing on the Iberian Peninsula. And when compared to similar data around Europe, the authors found that the Gravettian presence and culture was bigger and more prevalent than previously believed. Since then, archaeologists have been rewriting what they know about the influence of this era and its people — and their coinciding exchange networks.

The authors hope this breakthrough encourages archaeologists to always double-check and reformulate previously accepted approaches as new discoveries are made along the way. Garate’s findings were hidden in plain sight in a well-known cave system traversed countless times and have led to a remarkable updating of our knowledge of Gravettian culture.

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