On July 7, 2008, UNESCO declared three Basque caves–Santimamiñe in Bizkaia and Ekain and Altxerri in Gipuzkoa–to be World Heritage Sites. The Basque Country is at the epicenter of arguably the most important cave complex in Europe, an area framed by the world famous caves of Lascaux, Dordogne in southwestern France and Altamira, Cantabria, in northern Spain. Their designation as World Heritage Sites implied official international recognition for the cultural value of the cave art discovered in the three sites.
In order to preserve the cave art in these locations, they are, naturally, closed to the public. However, we can still get a flavor of what treasures lie deep within their walls. As regards Santimamiñe, one can undertake an amazing online virtual visit (click here to start) as well as view a great photo gallery of the cave and its surrounding area (click here to see). And when it comes to Ekain, as well as the option of a virtual visit (click here to start), those of you lucky enough to actually set foot in the Basque Country (congratulations by the way, it will be an unforgettable experience!), a replica of the original site exists, Ekainberri, which offers a unique opportunity to experience what it must have been like to live deep underground. Click here to visit the Ekainberri website.
If you’re interested in this topic, check out Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography, the only text in English that summarizes the key works of the most important Basque ethnographer of all time. Reflecting on the relationship between humans and animals, that intimate connection that underpins much of the cave art, Barandiarán observes (p. 148):
Among the species that inhabited the Basque Country during the Neolithic were cows, horses, deer, mountain goat, roebuck, chamois, wild boar, fox, mountain lion, the weasel, and the martin. Deer and especially wild boar were the animals most hunted by man.
Sheep already existed in Bizkaia, as we know from their remains in Santimamiñe; this is an indication that the practice of domesticating and using them had already reached this part of the Pyrenees.
Top: A horse depicted in Santimamiñe, image by ETOR Entziklopedia, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Bottom: The neck and head of a saiga antelope looking left. A bit more to the right is the beginning outline of another antelope and its horn. Image by GipuzkoaKultura, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.