Wednesday, November 10, 2021

European Cave Art

Sautuola's 1880 illustration of the great hall of polychromes of Altamira

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 2 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

Listen to the audio of this article!


Reproduction of a bison drawing in Altamira's great hall

In 1868, Modesto Cubillas Pérez, a weaver who also worked on the farm of a Spanish jurist and amateur archaeologist named Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, was out hunting when his dog ran away. While searching for the dog, Cubillas discovered a cave on Sautuola's property.

In 1879, Sautuola's eight-year-old daughter María led him into the cave to observe some drawings on the walls. The polychrome drawings portray the abundant wildlife of an ancient era: the steppe bison (now extinct), horses, goats and deer, and what may be a wild boar. There are also abstract images, and the outlines of handprints made by blowing powder over a hand placed on the wall.

Sautuola called in a professional archaeologist from the University of Madrid, and in 1880 they published their find, claiming the drawings were from the Paleolithic era.

Other professionals rejected and ridiculed their conclusions; the drawings were in such pristine condition that they seemed to be fake.

It was not until other, similar sites were found that Sautuola's conclusions were accepted, in 1902. Unfortunately, he was not around to hear their apologies: he had died 14 years earlier.

The cave is about 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) long, with a series of chambers connected by twisting passages. Artifacts deposited under the floor indicate two periods of occupation: about 18,500 years ago, and again from 16,590 to 14,000 years ago. In between, only wild animals lived in the cave.



Drawing of the "Sorcerer" at Trois-Freres

In 1914, three young men, sons of Count Henri Begouen, were exploring caves on their father's land along with a couple of their friends when they stumbled onto an amazing find. Now called "Trois-Freres," meaning "Three Brothers," the cave is considered one of the most important sites of Paleolithic cave art.

After the war, the site was studied by famed French priest-archaeologist Abbe Henri Breuil, who rated it one of the six best in the world (there are some 350 painted caves in France and Spain alone).

The cave is over 1,300 feet (400 meters) long, and is located on three levels. The river that created the caves still flows through the bottom-most level; the upper two contain an explosion of over 350 figures, which seem to date back as early as 15,000 to 14,000 years ago.

The art of Trois-Freres includes 84 horses, 170 bison, 20 ibex (a kind of wild goat), 40 reindeer, eight bears, six felines, two mammoths, one woolly rhinoceros, six birds, seven human- or god-like figures, five hand stencils, and numerous wedges, dots, semi-circles, and other abstract designs.

The cave may be best known, though, for a controversial figure called "The Sorcerer." No one knows what he (or it) really symbolizes, but Breuil guessed it was a type of priest or magician dressed for a ceremony. Others see it as a "Master Animal" (a kind of spirit) or even a god. Most people know it from Breuil's drawing, which in recent years has been challenged as inaccurate.



A horse at Lascaux

In September 1940, an 18-year-old was out in southwestern France with his dog, Robot, when Robot fell into a hole. Returning with three friends, the young man descended a 50-foot (15-meter) shaft to discover galleries filled with images primarily of large animals that would have lived in the area some 17,000 years earlier.

Father Breuil showed up here, too, and his drawings are heavily relied upon today due to the deterioration of the originals caused by the carbon dioxide expelled by visitors--some 1,200 per day--from the cave's opening to the public in 1948 until its closing in 1963.

The galleries have been given picturesque names like the Hall of the Bulls and the Chamber of Felines. The paintings are the work of many generations of artists, and include nearly 6,000 figures of animals (over 900), humans, and abstract designs. Of the animals, 605 have been identified with certainty. 364 of these are horses, and 90 are stags. Others include cattle and bison, felines, a bird, a bear, a rhinoceros, and a human.


We sometimes like to think that we modern humans are the best at everything. But the sophistication of the artwork in these caves dates back to a time when much of Europe was still covered in ice and reindeer was the main dish in many a meal in France and Spain.


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Answers in the first comment below.

  1. abundant
  2. amateur
  3. archaeologist
  4. chamber
  5. descended
  6. deterioration
  7. extinct
  8. felines
  9. jurist
  10. mammoths
  11. Paleolithic Period
  12. polychrome
  13. pristine
  14. ridiculed
  15. stumbled onto

  1. many-colored; not just black-and-white
  2. no longer living anywhere on earth (like the dinosaurs)
  3. room or room-like opening
  4. found accidentally
  5. the earliest part of the "Stone Age"; though it started as long as two million years ago, the final phase was around 40,000-12,000 years ago
  6. large elephant-like creatures no longer found on earth
  7. specialist in the study of prehistoric peoples and their cultures
  8. went down
  9. plentiful; easy to find
  10. not professional
  11. perfect; in "mint condition"
  12. made fun of
  13. judge, lawyer, or other person trained in the law
  14. disintegration; act of become less and less perfect
  15. cats and cat-like animals (lions, etc.)

Questions: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers in the first comment below.

  1. Which site--Altamira, Trois-Freres, or Lascaux--was found first? Which has the oldest paintings?
  2. What unfortunate thing happened to Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, owner and first archaeologist of Altamira?
  3. How did the cave called "Trois-Freres" get its name?
  4. What unusual figure is found in Trois-Freres cave? What do the experts say about it
  5. What constitutes the main type of figures at Lascaux?

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice

    Vocabulary: 1. i; 2. j; 3. g; 4. c; 5. h; 6. n; 7. b; 8. o; 9. m; 10. f; 11. e; 12. a; 13. k; 14. l; 15. d

    Questions (suggested answers; yours may be slightly different)
    1. Altamira was the first of the three to be found, in 1868, but Lascaux has the oldest paintings.
    2. Professional archaeologists made fun of Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, saying the images at Altamira were so perfect they must be fake. The site was not accepted as authentic until 14 years after his death.
    3. Trois-Freres was named for the three brothers that found it.
    4. Trois-Freres cave contains a figure called "The Sorcerer." Experts disagree whether it is a human in a costume, or some kind of spirit or god.
    5. Most of the figures at Lascaux represent the species of large animals that lived around the area 17,000 years ago.