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Cave paintings of bison (all photos courtesy Bizkaia Provincial Council)

Archaeologists in Spain have come across an extraordinary series of Paleolithic-era paintings in Basque Country’s Atxurra cave that they estimate date as far back as 14,000 years. The 70 or so animal drawings lie nearly 1,000 feet underground, which made access difficult when archaeologists first found the site in 1929 and during excavations carried out by José Miguel de Barandiarán five years later.

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Diego Garate examining the cave paintings (click to enlarge)

Archaeologist Diego Garate headed this latest dig, which began in 2014, and he described the team’s discovery as “an exceptional find, the equivalent of discovering a lost Picasso.

“Discoveries of this caliber are not made every year, at most, once a decade,” Garate told The Local. “It is important because of the quantity of figures depicted, their excellent conservation and for the presence of associated archeological materials such as charcoal and flint tools.”

The collection of paintings show traditional hunting scenes of horses, bison, deer, and goats, with the engraving technique at times highlighted with black paint, as archaeologist Joseba Rios-Garaizar writes on a blog. He describes that the figures vary in size and that the depictions are “fairly homogenous,” noting that some sections reveal details that represent the animals’ coats. Some creatures are also wounded by spears; one bison is pierced with over 20 spears, apparently granting it the distinction of the cave painting of a bison with the most spear markings found in Europe yet. Garate also told The Local that Atxurra may hold the most cave paintings of animal figures in Basque Country.

This recent discovery boosts Spain’s reputation as a rich source of cave paintings, from the famed Upper Paleolithic drawings in Altamira to the recently found ones in the Cantabria region that are 20,000 years old. The Atxurra cave is not currently open to the public for safety reasons, but archaeologists are intending to create and make accessible 3D versions of the illustrations, although the details of that project are not specified.

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Diego Garate examining the cave painting

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One of the cave paintings in Atxurra

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Cave paintings in Atxurra

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

5 replies on “Trove of 14,000-Year-Old Animal Paintings Found in Spanish Cave”

  1. Color me skeptical…
    How do they know the drawings are 12,000-14,000 years old?
    If I scratch a rock can one tell me how long ago I scratched it?
    And all these type cave drawings found in Europe all have the same style of drawing…how could that be? And they are drawn thousands of years a part, too.
    If I take a piece of 10,000 year old charcoal found on the floor of the cave and draw on the rock wall is it a 10,000 year old drawing? How can one tell when I drew on the wall using my 10,000 year old piece of charcoal?

    1. Everything i know, i owe to my ignorance. Ignorance leads to questions leads to research leads to knowledge. Your questions are good ones. There exist good answers to them. Now do the research.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I have done a bit of research….been asking about/researching this for years after first visiting the area of the Lascaux cave drawings area in France. I have asked a lot of people & I have found/received zero answers to my questions. They always return to the “it is radio carbon dated” line.

        Why couldn’t someone have visited the caves 100, 200, 300 years ago (or whenever) picked up a 10,000 year old piece of charcoal or 15,000 year old piece of pottery laying in the cave and drawn the animals? The charcoal or pottery pigment on the walls is 10,000 – 15,000 years old, but it was drawn last week. How would a scientist know if the painting was done 150 years ago or 10,000? Just because the color pigment is old does it make the drawings that old, too??? No.

        And isn’t this the scheme of art fraudsters? – Get old paper and use old paints from the period the artist painted. Then the scientists checking the painting all confirm the “paint and papers is of the same age as the painter’s other work, therefore it was painted back then and is not a fake”.

        I will keep asking and researching.

        1. If you’re not willing to dredge through pages and pages of science writing (some of the worst on the planet) try this: Mass-spectrometric radiocarbon dating. Contrary to what creationists would have you believe, radiocarbon dating is extremely accurate for biological materials between 1,000 and 500,000 years old. The mineral pigments cave artists used – ocher and chalk, for example – may not be radiocarbon date-able, but they were mixed with biological material (usually animal fat) as is the charcoal they used for blacks, and that is. Also, just as over time, paintings acquire layers of dust and dirt unique to where they’ve been and a crackeleure that fits their medium, cave paintings get covered with a thin layer of mineral deposits unique to that cave. The depth of that layer also helps to date the paintings.

          As far as the argument that these must be fakes – Keep in mind that these cave paintings have just been discovered because they are in very inaccessible caverns. Why would anybody bother to discover the cavern – which judging from the gear on the man in the photo was no easy feat; the cave was probably hundreds of feet closer to the surface when the paintings were made – and decide “Gee, I’ll fake some cave paintings?” You would have to figure out how to fake pigments well enough to get past the radio-carbon dating tests – something monstrously difficult, assuming it is even possible, we’re dealing with radioactive decay, and even if you could find ancient animal fat, exposing it to modern air when you mixed the pigments would probably wreck your forgery. Then you’d have to sneak back to the cavern, produce the painting, fake the mineral covering – again, something that may not even be possible – and for what? When was the last time you ever heard of a cave painting being auctioned for anything? It might be more reasonable to accept the idea that humans were capable of expressions of creativity before western civilization and all its attendant technology reared its mighty head.

  2. Seriously? Okay, there are other ways to tell, and I’m no scientist. Lime and other dissolved minerals are released from rocks over time. They form a layer, an accretion, over the base rock. If you take a 10,000 year old piece of charcoal and draw on a cave wall, it will be on top of the older accretions. So that is one way I can think of. And this is on a microscopic level in many cases, so it does take expert study to tell.

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