Ancient Art Found in Basque Country Changes Understanding of Prehistoric Society

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.