Very faded but finally noticed, the Basque region cave paintings show that distinct Paleolithic cultures survived cheek by jowl for millennia

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 noticed1, 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.

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The fact that differing artistic styles were found among peoples that did rub shoulders with one another throughout thousands of years is a mystery, Ochoa says. “We think maybe that they have different cultural backgrounds. But we don’t know why they chose to have two very distinct styles,” she adds.

If we think about it, “modern” art in Europe, Central Asia, the Near East, India and the Far East all maintained substantive differences over long centuries, during which the cultures were very much in touch. So that could make sense.

  • 1. 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.

Ochoa, Blanca, Marcos García-Diez, and Irene Vigiola-Toña. “Filling the Void: a New Palaeolithic Cave Art Site at Danbolinzulo in the Basque Country.” Antiquity 94, no. 373 (2020): 27–43.

doi:10.15184/aqy.2019.236

Northern Spain has a high density of Upper Palaeolithic cave art sites. Until recently, however, few such sites have been reported from the Basque Country, which has been considered to be a ‘void’ in the distribution of parietal art. Now, new discoveries at Danbolinzulo Cave reveal a different situation. The graphic homogeneity of the motifs, which comprise five ibex, two horses and a possible anthropomorph, along with several unidentified figures, strongly suggests a pre-Magdalenian (>20 000 cal BP) date for the art. Here, Danbolinzulo is interpreted in its wider context as occupying a pivotal position between Cantabrian-Iberian and French/continental art traditions.