The astonishing—and accidental—Ice Age discovery made by Spanish spelunkers
The Ardines massif on Spain‘s northern coast is riddled with limestone caves. It lies a few miles from some of the most famous sites of Paleolithic cave art in the world, including Altamira, discovered in 1868, and El Castillo, discovered in 1903. In spring 1968 young cavers exploring the massif were about to find another one.
Equipped with only basic gear, the group was spelunking in a cavern known locally as Pozu’l Ramu. They stopped at a subterranean water source on their way to the cave. However, one of the group members wandered slightly further away from the group. They suddenly heard him shout “Paintings!” The light from their lamps caught a leg of an animal as the cavers moved forward. Although they were not archaeologists, they knew this was a significant find and alerted authorities the next day.
Shortly after the discovery, one of the cavers, Celestino “Tito” Fernandez Bustillo, was killed in an accident, and so it was decided to name the cave after him. A plethora paintings, engravings and sculpture from the Tito Bustillo Cave have been discovered after decades of research. They vividly reflect the changing subject matter and techniques during the Ice Age.
Running from east to west, the Tito Bustillo Cave is 1,600 feet long. The narrow passageways connect large chambers with soaring rocky vaults that are separated by smaller nooks. Its walls are almost entirely covered with prehistory images, including thousands of years worth of painted and engraved images.
Shadows and light
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A black-and-violet horse is on the main panel in the Tito Bustillo Cave.
The Tito Bustillo Cave contains some supreme examples of two-tone Paleolithic art, consisting of red or violet shades combined with black. Some areas have had their color smudged to let the rock below show through. These images look more real than they are because of the shading.
The world’s earliest known cave paintings were produced in Spain more than 65,000 years ago by Neanderthals, who then died out about 40,000 years ago. The hundreds of artworks at Tito Bustillo were all the work of modern humans, Homo sapiens. The earliest pieces date to about 36,000 years ago. Dating the artwork and the artifacts has revealed that humans lived, worked, and created in the cave for more than 26,000 years.
The original cave entrance, at the far west of the system, became blocked by a landslide 9,500 years ago, ending human occupation of the site (the cavers of 1968 found their way in through another fissure). The modern entrance to the site is located at the eastern end. It is the way that visitors can enter today.
Ice Age masterpiece
The first excavation of Tito Bustillo Cave took place in 1971 and centered on the Main Panel near the original entrance of the cave. The cave’s largest room, the Main Panel, displays many drawings and depictions of animals that were engraved, painted, or drawn on the rock’s surface. Close study by specialists over many years revealed the presence of 30 deer, 13 horses, nine reindeer, five goats, four bison, one auroch, as well as unidentified animals, lines, and signs.
In 1973 a more extensive study of the cave began under the direction of Rodrigo de Balbin Behrmann of the University of Alcala. Balbin and his teams have conducted numerous studies of the site over the years and explored the entire Tito Bustillo compound. To determine how the cave’s inhabited and artistic areas relate to each other, extensive studies have been conducted.
Carbon dating carried out in the course of Balbin’s studies confirms that work on and around the Main Panel was carried out mainly in the Magdalenian period, roughly between 17,000 and 10,000 years ago as Europe slowly emerged from the last ice age. This is the period of most activity at Tito Bustillo.
From the large chamber that contains the Main Panel, the principal galleries curves eastward to reach the other end. Side chambers and smaller caves with art from different eras are scattered along its path.
At the eastern end is the so-called Chamber of Vulvas, whose wall decorations are believed represent female genitalia. In a smaller chamber are two very faint red paintings depicting human-like figures. One is a male and the other female. These works of art are the oldest found in Tito Bustillo Cave, dating as early as 36,000 years ago. Scholars believe that these representations may be indicative of an early interest in human fertility and procreation.
Later Magdalenian art works, such as those on the Main Panel, reveal less interest in human forms and more attention to animal representation. The Magdalenian style, like other Paleolithic sites, is distinguished by its two-color (bichrome), which emphasizes rock engravings and paintings. It also shows a keen interest in large local animals, such as horses and deer. These animals have symbolic significance, as well as their practical importance as food sources.
Practical and spiritual
Archaeologists have recovered a wealth of artifacts from the site reflecting the patterns of daily life for hunter-gatherers who lived there. Arrowheads, spears and other tools were made from shells and stones, bones, antlers, and bone. These tools provide valuable evidence of how humans hunted and fished for food, as well as how they made clothing.
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A red female figure is on a stalactite in the Tito Busillo Cave.
Human figures are rarely depicted in Paleolithic art, which is why their presence in the Tito Bustillo Cave is so significant. A stalactite revealed an intriguing anthropomorphic figure. Created about 36,000 years ago, during one of the earliest phases of the cave’s occupation, it is believed to depict a woman. Another human form is visible on the other side, possibly a male. These artworks, which are painted in red ocher and hidden in a difficult-to-reach area, are made of wood. Site expert Rodrigo de Balbin Behrmann, who first spotted the figures in 2000, interprets a sexual relationship between the two, which means it could be one of the first representations of sex in Paleolithic art.
In addition to practical objects, numerous artifacts reflect the inhabitants’ symbolic universe. Pendants to decorate the body and bones with signs and animals hint at their social and spiritual relationships.
The variety of spaces in the cavern adds to the complexity of excavation. Evidence suggests that Paleolithic people attempted to create a “topographic markings system” by leaving symbols on rock surfaces and building low walls to mark different spaces.
Although these cave environments seem mysterious to modern visitors, Balbin and his colleagues believe the realms of daily life and artistic activities were not as separated as previously thought. Although Tito Bustillo clearly had a spiritual dimension, its inhabitants wanted, in the words of Balbin, to “humanize its dark and deep spaces.”
Most of the chambers in the Tito Bustillo Cave are off-limits to public viewing in order to protect the ancient art. Visitors can still view the Menagerie of ancient animals in the Main Panel chamber. It can be difficult for most of the animals to be identified from the crowd of superimposed images that surround them. The black lines of larger horses and the violet and black hues in the reindeer still stand out with amazing clarity after thousands of years.
In 2008 UNESCO included the Tito Bustillo Cave on its World Heritage List. It describes it as one of 18 cave sites in northern Spain that “represents the apogee of Paleolithic cave art.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.