Shop Index | Image List and Data

Photo Archives: Paleolithic Art in Northern Spain


Preview Edition

  • 42 photos(about1280x1000,1470x980/JPEG) and the 4 variations(1470x980/JPEG).
  • Commentary by César González Sainz & Roberto Cacho Toca, Univ. of Cantabria.
  • Royality Free for private and educational use.
In this downloadable photo archives are contained 9 photos of Paleolithic cave art of Chufin cave with the archeological data and commentary as shown in this preview pages. Only the small sized reference images and a part of commentary are shown in this preview edition, but if you are interested to see more and to use these photos, please go to Kagi store and purchase the data package. Once payment has been made at the Kagi store, you will receive an e-mail containing the URL to download the data package. All photos that are contained in this package are ROYALITY FREE for private and educational use.

Santimamiñe Cave

Cueva de Santimamiñe is located in the hill of Ereñusarre, very near the village of Kortezubi, four kilometers from the town of Guernica, in Vizcaya. The cave's name comes from a nearby chapel of Santimamiñe, which in the Basque language means San Mamés, or St Amandus, to whom the chapel is dedicated. Equally, the name of the hill comes from the Basque word ereñotz, which means bay-tree, and which refers to the abundance of this plant.

The cave is situated in an area of great natural beauty, in the heart of Urdaibai, an area of 220 square kilometers which was declared a "Reserve of the Biosphere" by UNESCO in 1984. It is crossed by the estuary of Guernica, and also encloses the coastline around the mouth of the River Oka. Numerous species of birds use this space as a resting-place during their migrations from north Europe to Africa. Although the environmental conditions, and the position of the coastline, must have been very different in the Upper Paleolithic, the hunter-gatherers who camped at Santimamiñe would have had easy access to areas of estuary and shore that were rich in animal species, and where they would have had all the facilities they needed for their hunting, fishing or gathering activities. The excavations carried out in the archaeological deposit have thus revealed abundant remains of their presence.

The cave was already well-known by the local inhabitants when in January 1916 a group of young men, among whom was José F. Bengoechea, saw the first of the paintings. Their discovery reached the attention of the great musician and composer Jesé Guridi, who visited the cave a few months later. As he saw the importance of the find, he informed the authorities of the Province of Vizcaya. In the following months more important visitors came to see the site, including the French prehistorian Henri Breuil. He was followed by F. de la Quadra Salcedo and A. Alcalá-Galiano, members of the Comisión de Monumentos de Vizcaya, who produced the first copies of the prehistoric paintings.

The excavations of the deposit, and the full documentation of the cave art, began in 1918, by a team led by Telesforo de Aranzadi, José Miguel de Barandiaran and Enrique Eguren, true pioneers of scientific prehistoric research in the Basque Country. The site was dug in a number of seasons between 1918 and 1926, and in a second phase, between 1960 and 1962. These digs uncovered stratigraphy with levels going from the Aurignacian to the Roman period, one of the most important deposits in the whole of the Cantabrian region. The same archaeologists also carried out the basic study of the cave art in Santimamiñe, although a few new figures have since been found in several parts of the cave. The art in the cave is currently being revised by X. Gorrochategui Nieto, who has prepared a full study about Paleolithic art in Vizcaya, now in press.

Therefore, Cueva de Santimamiñe is important, not only because of its large archaeological deposit, but also for the interesting group of Paleolithic paintings and engravings inside the cave. Although it is a very long cave, with many side-passages, and shafts which apparently descend to lower series of passages, the known cave art is located in just four areas. The first is about fifty meters from the entrance, on the right-hand wall of the main passage, where we find black paintings of an ibex and a possible bison.

The main group of paintings is in a side-passage to the left of the main gallery, very close to the figures mentioned already. This side-passage is formed by a first small passage, leading to the so-called "ante-chamber", and a final room or chamber. Both spaces have important Magdalenian paintings. The way into the side-passage, which must have been quite difficult in the Paleolithic, has been made easier by a metal ladder. Climbing up this we reach the "ante-chamber", a small passage about 5m long, whose walls have several animal figures; a number of bison and horses and the head of an auroch. As well, other motifs can be seen which may have originally been animal depictions.

At the back of the Ante-chamber, more ladders lead to the best known part of Santimamiñe: the Chamber, whose wall displays some of the most interesting Paleolithic figures in the east of the Cantabrian region. On entering the chamber, the visitor comes straight to a stalagmitic column, with three figures of bison in a vertical position. The two best-drawn bison are in the upper part, looking downwards, while below them the third bison faces upwards. Despite the differences they show, especially regarding the quality of their execution, the three figures have many features in common, for example their tails are raised. This is an unusual detail in the depiction of other animals, and it may represent a state of excitation in the bison.

The walls on the right of the entrance into the chamber have the paintings with the least firm lines in Santimamiñe: an ibex, several bison and other figures which are difficult to classify as they are incomplete, or badly drawn. or poorly conserved.

Situated to the left of the vertical bison is the panel which, in 1916, was first noticed by the discoverers of Santimamiñe. It is formed by a group of black paintings, including an acephalous horse, a bear (the first figure they saw), and two incomplete figures of a stag and an ibex. These four paintings form a curious composition. The most complete figures, the bear and horse, seem to be facing each other, although it is now difficult to appreciate this as the horse is in a lamentable state of conservation, and has practically disappeared. The stag and ibex, only represented by their heads, back, neck and a horn, are also facing each other, but this time in a vertical position, with the ibex head upwards and the stag head downwards.

The zone to the left of the entrance has the best composition in Santimamiñe. The largest and smoothest wall in the chamber was chosen for this panel of a horse and seven bison. The figures are arranged in a very striking way. The horse seems to occupy the central position on the wall, and it is surrounded by the bison. The ones on the left, nearest the entrance, are the least complete. Only one of them represents the whole animal, despite being affected by calcite which partially covers it and makes it hard to see. This bison, and the one further to the left are in a vertical position. To their right we find the central horse.

The four bison situated below and on the right of the horse show very similar features. They were all depicted whole, usually with two horns and four limbs, except the bison on the far right which only has one fore and rear limb. It also has two tails, as if the artist wanted to correct the figure. The technique used is again black paint in the outline, with the interior filled with a wash in the same color. It is noticeable how the figures are out of proportion, as the front quarters are much larger than the rear-quarters, which exaggerates the natural asymmetry of the animals' bodies.

Returning to the main passage, and continuing a further 100m along this, we reach the chamber known as the "New Hall of Paintings". It is a small rectangular chamber, about 5m wide and 8m long. The first figure we see is an ibex, of which the fore-quarters are very poorly conserved. Below it, a strange construction of lines is interpreted as depicting a bison, although its form is unique in Paleolithic art. About 3m away, the figure of a horse can be recognized, with a bison on the opposite wall, and both face the back of the chamber.

The art of Santimamiñe shows certain homogeneity in themes and techniques. One of its most noticeable features is the total absence of conventionalized signs. Among the figurative art, bisons are the most frequent species, with eighteen depictions, followed by horse and ibex, of which there are five figures. The other themes represented are aurochs (four figures), a stag and a bear, as well as two bovines which are difficult to classify as either bison or aurochs, and another four unidentified animal figures. Horse and bison are the only animals present in each of the three main decorated areas: the Ante-chamber, Chamber, and New Hall.

Regarding the techniques used, black paint is almost exclusive, as it appears in thirty-two animal figures, and is combined with engraving in another two depictions. Engraving alone was used in only four figures.

Another very striking feature is the large number of animals in a vertical position in the Chamber, where 30% of the animal figures are represented in this way. According to our statistics, this position is only adopted in 6% of the total number of figures in Cantabrian art, where it is usually due to a number of factors. Most of the vertical animals are on sections of wall whose longest axis is itself vertical, so that the Paleolithic artist adapted the animal figure to the available space. However, this is not the case in the Chamber of Santimamiñe, where it seems that the artists wanted to make the maximum use of the space in the Chamber, painting some of the figures in places which are not the most suitable, such as the column opposite the entry into the Chamber, with the three vertical bison, or the bison on the left of the main panel, where the small available space was used as fully as possible. The wish to make use of the whole surface area can be understood in small caves, or in those where the character of the cave walls means that only small areas are suitable for decoration. But this is not true of Santimamiñe, a large cave which offered its prehistoric visitors numerous walls appropriate for painting. The only explanation for this large number of vertical figures in the Chamber must therefore be linked to the interest this area held for the Paleolithic artists. The virtual absence of superimpositions among the figures may indicate that the group of figures is relatively synchronic. A more difficult question to answer is why the artists who painted in Santimamiñe were so interested in painting in this chamber and not in others. If we accept the first interpretations of cave art, which saw Paleolithic art from a magic-religious point of view, we may consider the Chamber in Santimamiñe as a ritual site, or a shrine.

The chronology normally accepted for the paintings in Santimamiñe is within Leroi-Gourhan's Style IV, basically in the Magdalenian period. This is shown by certain characteristics of the figures, such as the frequent depiction of interior details and partition lines, the correct perspective seen in the bison in the main panel in the Chamber, the naturalism of many of the figures, as well as the association between the techniques of black paint and engraving, which is so common in this period in the Cantabrian region.


Aranzadi, T.; Barandiaran, J. M.; Eguren, E. 1925: Exploraciones en la Caverna de Santimamiñe. Memoria 1. En Barandiaran, J. M. 1976: Obras completas. Vol. IX, pp 13-89.

Apellániz, J. M. 1971: La caverna de Santimamiñe. Publicaciones de la Exma. Diputación de Vizcaya.

Photographed by Takeo Fukazawa & Co-Project Team of Texnai Inc. and the University of Cantabria
Comment by César González Sainz & Roberto Cacho Toca, Univ. of Cantabria

Texnai Inc.:
2-1, Udagawa-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan. Tel:03-3464-6927 Fax:03-3476-2372
Copyright reserved by Takeo Fukazawa &Texnai, Inc., University of Cantabria, IPA