Spanish Engravings Of Bison Reveal An Ancient Pan-European Style

These white lines highlight hard-to-see engravings on a cave wall in northern Spain. The left figure is believed to be a bird, while the right shows a bison drawn in the Gravettian style, seen across the rest of southern Europe but previously unknown in Spain. Garate et al/PLOS One

Around 30,000 years ago, cave art was flowering across Europe with representations of animals that remain breathtaking today. Astonishingly, common styles were used in locations thousands of kilometers apart. The scope of what is known as the Gravettian cultural complex has now been extended even further, with the discovery of its distinctive engraving style on the Iberian Peninsula for the first time.

Cultural relics from between 34,000 and 24,000 years ago show many common features across most of Europe. We see this not only in the art on cave walls from the period but the tools and even burial practices of the era. A person living in France at the time would have had no direct contact with someone a few hundred kilometers away, let alone in the Balkans. Portable items such as the famous “Venuses” of the era may have been transported and copied, but the commonality in cave styles between artists who could never have seen each others' work is more remarkable.

One example was the way bison, a favorite subject, were portrayed. With no respect for perspective, horns and legs are drawn as if seen front on but the body from the side. Although other features of Gravettian culture have been found as far west as Portugal, the distinctive drawing style appeared absent from what is now Spain or Portugal. Now, however, a paper in PLOS One reports engravings in three caves at Aitzbitarte Hill in the Basque region of Spain that show this aspect of Gravettian culture also crossed the Pyrenees.

 Photograph and tracing of a horse wall of Aitzbitarte Cave III. Garate et al, 2020 (PLOS One)

The caves were rediscovered in the 19th Century, but the art was only found in 2015 as part of a rush of finds that has expanded the number of decorated caves in the Eastern Cantabrian Region of Spain from 10 to 30. The most heavily decorated of the new discoveries date to the Magdalenian period 23,000-17,000 years ago, but the Aitzbitarte caves show a sequence of artistic styles dating back further, with 18 of 19 bison in the Gravettian style.

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

The caves are too narrow for laser scanning techniques and some other recording methods, and the engravings are hard to make out. Some lines have been almost erased by visitors rubbing against them. Nevertheless, the authors, led by Dr Diego Garate of the Universidad de Cantabria, were able to piece together the bison, horses, and other animals depicted. All lines appear to have been made in a single incision and are located away from the main passages in areas that are difficult to access, at least today.

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