Ekain Cave, Guipscoa, Basque Country
César. González Sainz &
Roberto Cacho Toca
Department of Historical Science, University of Cantabria
Cueva de Ekain contains one of the most interesting groups of cave art on the Cantabrian coast, not so much for the number of figures it has, but above all for the exceptional artistic quality of many of its paintings, and the good state of conservation of the art and its surroundings inside the cave. It is located on the eastern slopes of Ekain hill, very close to the village of Cestona, belonging to the municipality of Deba, in Guipscoa. The Goltzibar and Belioso brooks surround the hill, and they unite a few meters away from the cave, and form the Sastarrain rivulet, which flows into the River Urola at Cestona.
The cave is not very far from the present coast line, just seven kilometers away in a straight line. However, at the time when the cave was decorated, the accumulation of ice in the immense glaciers that existed then, resulted in a lowering of sea level. In the Cantabrian region, this meant that the coastline receded over seven kilometers to the north during the coldest periods. In any case, the cave's archaeological deposit has relatively little evidence of shell fishing. Cueva de Ekain is not an isolated site; in its surrounding area other significant Upper Paleolithic deposits are known, with particularly important occupations of the Magdalenian period (16,500 to 11,500 BP approximately). They are in the caves of Ermittia, Erralla, Urtiaga and Altxerri, and the last of these also has an important group of parietal engravings and paintings. They were used occasionally by the human populations who lived in this eastern part of the region, and whose subsistence was based on hunting red deer and ibex, and sometimes other species of ungulates, the fishing of salmon and trout in the rivers, and gathering vegetables, or shell-fish and other animals on the shore.
Cueva de Ekain was known to the people in the village of Sastarrain, when A. Albizuru and R. Rezabal discovered the cave art in June 1969. It was a small cave only thirteen meters long and barely two meters wide. To the right of the entrance, some boulders blocked a small opening, and when they pulled these boulders out, they were able to enter a new, larger passage, and find the splendid panel full of paintings of horses. They immediately informed Jos Miguel de Barandiaran of their discovery, and this well-known Basque archaeologist and ethnologist visited the cave the following day.
The Paleolithic cave paintings were soon studied and published by J. M. de Barandiaran, together with J. Altuna. Later, in 1978, a second, larger and more complete study was carried out by J. Altuna and J. M. Apellániz. Besides, a magnificent study was made of the archaeological deposit in the vestibule by a team from the Aranzadi Science Society at San Sebastián. They had excavated the deposit, and were able to document frequent occupations of the site, especially during the Magdalenian, when the paintings were produced, and in the later Epipaleolithic and Mesolithic periods.
Like most of the caves in the center and east of the Cantabrian region, Cueva de Ekain was formed in Cretaceous limestone of the Urgonian facies. It is a fairly small cave, consisting basically of a main passage a little over 100m long, with a few short side-passages. The entrance, which faces east, divides into two passages. The one on the left, which was known before 1969, is where the archaeological dig was carried out. The passage on the right leads to the inner decorated parts of the cave.
The first signs of cave art are found in a small side-passage, which has a simple black line. A little higher up, on the left-hand wall, we can see a large horse's head, also painted in black. A few meters further on, another side-passage on the left is known by the Basque name of Auntzei, or "Place of the Goats". The left-hand wall of this passage has a pair of engravings representing a stag and a hind; and then a salmon, and an ibex viewed from the front, as well as other lines which are hard to interpret. These are all painted in black. The opposite wall has at least one more depiction of an ibex, with its body in profile, and its head turned to face the spectator. These figures of ibex are represented therefore in a very common posture in real life, and one that was very familiar to the Paleolithic artists, who systematically hunted herds of ibex from Ekain during the Magdalenian. The posture is repeatedly depicted in Upper Paleolithic mobiliary and cave art, in such sites as Otero in Cantabria and Ker de Massat in Arige.
Returning to the main passage, we reach the central chamber, and a horse painted in black as a very simple outline figure, with proportions that are not too naturalistic. The greatest densities of figures are located at the back of this chamber, and several successive panels have depictions of bison, horses and other non-figurative motifs around a large block of stone. They announce the main compositions in Cueva de Ekain, situated on both sides of the next section of the main passage, called Zaldei or "Place of the Horses".
Each part of the chamber must be considered in turn. First, the block at the back of the central chamber has a magnificent whole bison, where the natural shape of the rock was used to represent its cervical-dorsal line and tail. Other figures of bison and horses are found nearby.
The best-known panel in Ekain is found on the right-hand side of Zaldei chamber, on a large oblique section of wall. It has an accumulation of a dozen horses, with four bison, a hind, an ibex and a fish, apparently a sole. A further bison has been seen recently, whose outline was scraped very superficially over some of the painted horses, so this should be added to the total number of figures mentioned above. The first impression the panel makes on visitors, after their initial amazement, is that it is a scenic composition, representing a herd of horses, with a few other animals on the edges of the scene. Several factors help to create this feeling in the spectator. Nearly all the horses are facing in the same direction, towards the back of the cave, and with a few exceptions, they are all similar in their size, compository scheme, and stylistic conventions. The other animals appearing around the edge of the panel, outside the central composition, are drawn in a much simpler way.
The opposite wall has further panels, which again contain a few bison, and above all horses. They are all very similar to some of the figures in the main panel, although two of these horses seem to be wounded with spears.
Ten meters from the panel of the horses, we find that the low roof of the passage has, on its left-hand side, two figures of brown bear together, one of which is acephalous. Both animals were painted in black, and the larger one is also engraved in its cervical-dorsal area. Like the example of the pairing of an engraved stag and hind, seen in the first part of Ekain, this is a composition of two animals in clear association, and in this case, of one of the least common species in cave art.
Practically at the end of the main passage, another group of animal figures includes horses again, as there are six examples, and engraved lines, arranged in non-figurative vertical and parallel series. Some of the horses in this area also have spears in their bodies. The art finishes at the very end of the passage, with engravings that, with many, very reasonable doubts, have been interpreted as possibly incomplete depictions of rhinoceros.
The central and final areas of Cueva de Ekain therefore contain a group of Paleolithic art, with several aspects which need to stressed. The figures are mostly paintings, and engraving was used only for two animal figures, a few series of non-figurative lines, or to indicate the profiles and other details of certain of the paintings in black or, less often, in red. In this way, Ekain is different from other sites, where the techniques are more balanced, such as Cueva de Altxerri, one of the nearest examples temporally and geographically. And it is similar to sites like Santimamiñe, or Las Monedas, Covaciella and El Covarón, which have even fewer engravings and are presumably closer in their Magdalenian chronology.
Black paint is clearly predominant over red, as happens in many Magdalenian sites. It was applied with procedures ranging from simple lines, to color wash extended totally or partially over the figure, in order to shape the different parts of their bodies. Above all, different procedures were used in the same figures; sometimes in two colors, the bichrome figures, or in any color or in both together with engraving.
The animal figures, and particularly certain of the horses, were painted with great naturalism. It is therefore frequent to find manes, eyes and nostrils, lines of the withers, ventral "M"-shaped lines separating areas of the horse's coat with different coloring, stripes on the upper parts of the limbs, and hairs on the under-belly. But some interesting features do not seem to fit in with this supposed desire for realism of the artists. For example, the forequarters of many of the horses were worked much more, and show more details and more precise techniques, than the rear-quarters, which are often simple sketches. The exaggerated size and prominence of the croup and rump of the horses is equally characteristic. This hypertrophy is conventional, and similarly found in sites in the western Pyrenees (Cueva de Sinhikole) and in central and eastern areas of the Cantabrian region (Santimamiñe, and the Lower Passage of La Garma).
The art left by Magdalenian artists in Ekain is of great interest from the iconographic point of view. It contains 71 depictions, mostly animals: 33 horses, 11 bison, 4 ibex, 2 hinds, 1 stag, 2 fish (salmon and possible sole), 2 possible backs of very doubtful rhinoceros, and a few series of lines. The figures are clearly polarized between horses and bison, with few complementary animals, such as hinds, which are so common in other Cantabrian sites. Conventionalized abstract signs are absent, just as in other caves that were decorated in middle or late Magdalenian phases, such as Covaciella, Las Monedas, Santimamiñe and Altxerri, but in contrast with Cullalvera and Pindal. It is also interesting that the composition in the main central panel is the same, but inverted, as on the roof of Altamira, in the central panel in Santimamiñe, or in Covaciella. That is to say that here horses appear to play the role that was taken by bison in the other sites; and not only in the number of figures, but also in their degree of completeness and realism. In all the caves mentioned, the degree of completeness is greater in the most numerous animal, whether that is bison, or horses as in Ekain.
The characters that we have described allow the art of Cueva de Ekain to be attributed to A. Leroi-Gourhan's Style IV (from 16,000 to 11,500 BP), and it is likely that it was produced during the middle or late Magdalenian, at some time between 13,500 and 12,000 years before the present.
- Altuna, J., Apellániz, J. M. 1978: Las figuras rupestres paleolticas de la cueva de Ekain (Deva, Guipzcoa). Munibe 30, 1-3.
- González Sainz, C.; Cacho Toca, R.; Altuna, J. 1999: Una nueva representación de bisonte en la cueva de Ekain (Pais Vasco). Munibe 51, pp 153-159.
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