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.
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.
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).
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.