Category: Basque prehistory

Major new find of millennial rock engravings in Lekeitio

The Provincial Council of Bizkaia has just announced a major new find of possibly 14,000-year-old rock engravings in Lekeitio. Remarkably, these engravings, which total about 50 in all, have been discovered within the town of Lekeitio itself, approximately 165 feet deep into the Armintxe cave well-known to local residents. The discovery was made in May this year by the ADES speleology team from Gernika and the Agiri archaeological association from Kortezubi, and follows another major find this year in the Atxurra caves near Berriatua, Bizkaia, which we covered in an earlier post here.

These images depict, among other things, 18 horses, 5 goats, and 2 bison. Aside from the striking clarity of the representations the find is also significant in that the engravings also include 2 lions – a completely new feature of paleolithic art discovered to date in the Cantabrian region. Alongside the animals there are also semicircles and lines making up calviform or club-shaped features, the first example of this type found within the Iberian Peninsula itself and more reminiscent of shapes found in the world famous caves of the Pyrenees.

The engravings are of an exceptional quality and experts speculate they were made using a novel technique of carving by means of dragging the carving instrument along the rock and hoisting up at the last moment to create a groove in the surface, creating a kind of scaling effect. There is still some doubt as to their exact age, with suggestions dating the find somewhere between 12,000 and 14,500 years. But whatever the case, this would appear to be a significant discovery. Check out the video below highlighting this amazing discovery!

Check out more on the story here.

September 11, 2008: Ekainberri replica cave site opens

 

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Exact replica paintings, based on the originals in Ekain, in Ekainberri. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On September 11, 2008, the Ekainberri replica cave site in Zestoa, Gipuzkoa, opened to the public for the first time. It is a replica of the Ekain cave in Deba, Gipuzkoa, which is included in UNESCO’s “Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain” World Heritage Site.

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Outside view of Ekainberri, from the museum website.

Ekain was discovered in 1969 by Rafael Rezabal and Andoni Albizuri, who on entering the cave came across intricate paintings–33 horses, 10 bison, 2 bears, 2 deer, 4 goats, and 2 fish as well as other nonfigurative marks–that would eventually be dated back to between 10,000 and 14,500 BCE. That same year, José Miguel de Barandiarán and Jesús Altuna began work on excavating the site, a task that lasted until 1975. Their findings were published in 1978 and updated in 1984. In short, they revealed one of the finest examples of cave paintings associated with the Magdalenian culture of the Upper Paleolithic period, on a level equal to that of the renowned paintings of Altamira and Lascaux.

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Exhibition hall in Ekainberri, from the museum website.

Given the obviously delicate nature of the original site it was impossible to allow full public access to these marvelous paintings. The various public authorities involved therefore decided to create a replica site, Ekainberri (“new Ekain”) as near as possible to the original, which would serve as a museum and information center about the people who inhabited these caves and the natural environment in which they lived. Although relatively new, Ekainberri has quickly become a landmark destination for visitors to the Basque Country.

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The actual replica of the Ekain cave in Ekainberri, from the museum website.

See the official Ekainberri site here.

The Basque Country is blessed with numerous cave sites. If you do get the chance to visit and are interested in these remarkable testaments to the remote human past, as well as Ekainberri be sure to set some time aside for a trip to the Cave of Zugarramurdi in Nafarroa and/or the Caves of Sara in Lapurdi.

If you’re interested in the topic, check out the Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography, with an introduction by Jesús Altuna.

Our very own Joseba Zulaika, who grew up near Ekain, also talks about the cave and its resonance in Basque culture in his classic study, Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament.

 

 

5,000-year-old Livestock Pens Found in Araba

117205_webA join research and exploration initiative between the University of Basque Country (UPV-EHU), the University of Barcelona, and the CSIC-National Research Council, led by UPV-EHU Professor of Prehistory Javier Fernández-Eraso, has discovered 5,000-year-old livestock pens in Araba.

The find demonstrates the use of rock-shelters as encloses for sheep and goats by agropastoral communities during the Chalcolothic period (also known as the Copper Age) in the Basque Country and across the northwestern Iberian Peninsula. The find also complements previous research conducted by the same team, which documented the presence of livestock enclosures dating back to the Neolithic Era, approximately 6,000 years ago.

arqueologia_700Ana Polo-Díaz, a researcher at the University of Basque Country’s Department of Geography, Prehistory, and Archeology added, “This is a piece of pioneering work in the studies on agropastoral communities on the Iberian Peninsula. We have evidence that the human groups that occupied San Cristóbal during the Chalcolithic used the shelter as a pen for goats and/or sheep and that this use, although repetitive throughout hundreds of years, was not ongoing but of a temporary nature linked to a seasonal exploitation of the rich natural resources available on the Sierra de Cantabria. We also know thanks to the microscopic study of the sediments that every now and again they used to burn the debris that had built up, probably to clean up the space that had been occupied and that this combustion process was carried out in line with some specific habits: they used to pile up the debris and on top of them pile up wood remains, perhaps to help to get the fire going before going on to burn the debris.”

See a report on the find here.

 

14,500-year-old animal paintings discovered in Basque cave

A team of archaeologists recently came across a major series of animal paintings, dating from up to c.14,500 years ago and including horses, bison, goats, and deer, in the Atxurra caves near Berriatua, Bizkaia. There are about 70 etchings in total dating from the Upper Paleolithic era that were previously unknown to modern researchers, most likely due to their remote location, approximately 1,000 feet deep, inside the cave system. The paitings may have contained black coal dust and were made using flint tools.

Check out a report on the findings here. See also a detailed first-hand report on the discovery (in Spanish) here.

The Atxurra cave was first discovered in 1929 and was excavated between 1934 and 1935 by Jose Miguel de Barandiaran, still considered to be the greatest Basque ethnographer of all time. For some wonderful traditional folk tales as well as detailed accounts of many of Barandiaran’s excavations, see Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography.

Flashback Friday: The Disciple of Barandiaran

On November 13, 1914, Julio Caro Baroja, the renowned anthropologist of Basque origin, was born in Madrid, Spain. He was the eldest son of Rafael Caro Raggio and Carmen Baroja Nessi. At a very early age, Julio moved to the Navarrese town of Bera, in the Basque Country. There, he would spend hours with his uncle, the famed author Pío Baroja. During his adolescence, he learned about Basque culture when he began reading books in his uncle’s library and this interest led him to undertake ethnographic research in the Basque Country. As a student of the Basque archaeologist and ethnographer Jose Migel Barandiaran, he quickly became drawn to Basque history and culture. In 1941, he had already completed a doctorate in ancient history. From this moment on, his contribution to Basque anthropology and historiography consisted of publishing numerous books and articles, including The Basques (1949) and Vasconiana (1974). Among other things, Baroja, who was considered a nonconformist scholar, observed Basque society as a synthesis and integration of modernity and tradition. In 1995, Julio Caro Baroja passed away in Bera and was buried in the local cemetery. Born in the context of World War I and dying in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Baroja lived through many of the turbulent events that marked the “short twentieth century,” which also influenced a considerable part of his work on Basque studies.

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From left, Julio Caro Baroja, Joxemiel Barandiaran Aierbe, and Juan Garmendia in Ataun, Gipuzkoa, in the 1970s.

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From left, Eloy Placer, Julio Caro Baroja, William A. Douglass, and Jon Bilbao during the Summer Session Abroad in Uztaritze, Lapurdi, organized by the Basque Studies Program in 1970. Source: Jon Bilbao Basque Library, UNR


For more information and a selection of his works translated into English, check out the book edited and translated by Jesús Azcona, The Selected Essays of Julio Caro Baroja.

Every Friday we look into our Basque archives for interesting historic events that happened on the same day.

Race to save wild Basque cattle in Iparralde

A report (in French) in Sud-Ouest on October 24 notes that the Iparraldeko Betizuak association, an organization dedicated to protecting the remaining wild Basque cattle or betizuak in Iparralde, has been officially dissolved by its head, Iban Seiliez, in an attempt to “make the state and [different] bodies face up to their responsibilities.”

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A betizu on Mount Xoldokogaina, Biriatu, Lapurdi. Photo by Seiliez, via Wikimedia Commons

The betizu–from the Basque behi izua or “elusive cow”–is a breed that still inhabits parts of the Basque Country, mainly in Iparralde and Navarre, numbering perhaps 600 in total truly wild cattle (there are domesticated betizuak throughout the Basque Country). In Iparralde, where there are around 100, they are to be found mainly on the slopes surrounding  Mount Larrun (or Larhun; La Rhûne in French), the Ibardin Pass and Mount Arranomendi (Mondarrain in French), two areas of southern and southastern Lapurdi. According to Seiliez, “it’s one of the oldest breeds in Europe. It was almost made extinct in the 1920s because wild cattle were slaughtered during construction of the Larrun train.” Its characteristics are described here.

For Seiliez, “I think the objective of the association’s goal, which was to promote coexistence between the betizu and other mountain users, has not been achieved. Instead, we have disempowered the authorities.” He thus found it necessary to dissolve the association as a means of forcing more involvement from the authorities. “The betizu is unique in Europe,” he concludes,  which “needs a sustainable management plan and a proper status . . . the authorities must assume this responsibility.” The provincial government of Navarre, for example, established a conservation plan for the breed, ceding land from an abandoned farm in the Urraulgoiti Valley for 45 animals to live in at least “semi-freedom.”

Betizu cattle, known alternately as behigorri (red cow), zezengorri (red bull), and txahalgorri (red calf), were important in Basque mythology as spirits that took animal form in order guard important caves. There are theories, moreover, that link this breed to those cattle represented in the parietal art or cave paintings of Europe’s most famous sites (though many of these paintings actually depict a now extinct type of bison, in some sites there are representations of bulls portrayed in a noticeably reddish color reminiscent of the betizuak). Regarding this mythological status of the betizuak, as noted in the Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography:

They did not allow anyone to enter their dwelling place. In certain cases they kidnap young people who have been the target of some curse and hold them captive in their underground dens . . . It is useful to recall that the same figures that are situated by Basque mythology in caverns also appear painted or engraved by men of the Magdalenian period and earlier on the walls of some of the caves of our country.

In short, these are animals that have been extremely important in Basque culture for thousands of years. One can only hope that a solution is found to help them survive in what is their land as well.

Discover the Basque Country: The Sara Caves

For those of you who may be lucky enough to get to visit the Basque Country sometime, we thought we’d share a few of our favorite places with you.

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Entrance to the Sara Caves. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Basque Country abounds with caves that point to the prehistoric origins of modern Europeans. One of the best prepared cave complexes for visitors lies just outside the beautiful and historic village of Sara (itself well worth a visit) in Lapurdi. The Sara Caves are a actually a complex of different cavities, and there are guided visits to the Lezea Cave, inside Mount Atxuria. Onsite, there is also a free museum highlighting human evolution in the area and a megalithic park in which visitors can see reconstructions of monuments dating back to the  Neolithic Age (4000 to 2500 BCE).

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Jose Miguel de Barandiaran. Photo by Jesus Mari Arzuaga, Oñati City Hall, via Wikimedia Commons

Visitors to the caves (whether in person or just online) will also note the importance of Jose Miguel de Barandiaran. His figure adorns the website, and the guided tour of Lezea Cave is actually dedicated to his memory. Barandiaran (1889-1991) was a pioneering ethnographer who did much to establish the discipline of Basque anthropology and lived to the age of 101. Caves and dolmen excavation were a central feature of his academic work but he also recorded the legends, and superstitions of the Basque people. Although from Ataun (Gipuzkoa), he spent 13 years in exile in Sara during the initial period of the Franco dictatorship, and felt a great attachment to the area.

The diverse nature of Barandiaran’s research, with a biographical introduction by Jesús Altuna, can be seen in Selected Writings of José Miguel de Barandiarán: Basque Prehistory and Ethnography. This is a wonderful collection of articles on a wide range of topics from magic to hunting and includes surveys of the various stages of prehistoric human settlement in the Basque Country.

Discover the Basque Country: The Basque Coast Geopark

For those of you who may be lucky enough to get to visit the Basque Country sometime, we thought we’d share a few of our favorite places with you.

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The flysch formation on the coast of Zumaia revealing different eras of geological development through time. Photo by Jean Michel Etchecolonea, via Wikimedia Commons

Geoparks are areas that are committed to a strategy for sustainable development based on their natural and cultural values. The Basque Coast Geopark is the first of its kind in the Basque Country and seeks to promote both the natural and cultural environment of the coastal area linking the towns of Zumaia, Deba, and Mutriku, all in Gipuzkoa.

This particular part of the Basque coast offers a world famous example of the flysch formation: a sequence of successive rock strata uncovered as a result of erosion by wave action. These flysch strata thus reveal an entire span of geological development stretching back some 60 million years (from about 110 to 50 million years ago). In short, this is a stunning visual record of the earth’s development. This area is likewise known for its karst landscape – a topography formed by the eroded limestone of an ancient tropical sea. This erosion led to the formation of caves that also bear witness to very early human habitation.

The Basque Coast Geopark is an example of new ways of thinking about tourism and how we can interact with rather than harm nature. If you’re interested in these issues, check out Sustainable Development, Ecological Complexity, and Environmental Values, edited by Ignacio Ayestarán and Miren Onaindia. Here you’ll find a collection of articles that address environmental questions from a Basque perspective including, for example, an evaluation of millennium ecosystems from the Basque Country, the environmental value of the karstic landscape of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, Basque forest systems, and the social values and sustainable practices of Basque inshore fishermen.