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Engravings of bison in Spanish caves reveal a common artistic culture in ancient Europe

Diego Garate, a doctor in Prehistory from the University of Cantabria and a specialist in the artistic expressions of Paleolithic societies, was surprised to see a 27,000-year-old bison engraving, one and a half meters long, covered by an “Exit” graffiti and an arrow that indicated the way to leave the cavern. The discovery, which occurred in September 2015 in a cave on the Aitzbitarte hill (Basque Country), has shown after several years of study the existence of a common artistic culture in ancient Europe.

Garete says that he was exploring the cavern with a group of speleologists with the suspicion that there they might find some sample of rock art: “We passed through a small arch, very short, about 50 centimeters, which overlooked a corridor, and when we raised the head I saw an impressive bison carved into the stone, covered by graffiti, with characteristics similar to those of other bison found in at least 17 caves in different parts of the Iberian Peninsula and Central Europe. ”The work of Garate and his team, published this week in the magazine Plos One, includes observations of engravings of bison, horses and a bird in three caves in the area that represent an artistic style previously unknown in the Iberian Peninsula.

Garate began looking for Paleolithic engravings in the Basque Country a decade ago. “It is a region in which very little rock art was known in comparison with neighboring areas such as Asturias, where the Altamira cave is; or the central Pyrenees, full of decorated caves; or French Burgundy, famous for its engravings of bison and mammoths ”, says the researcher. In the center of this geographical triangle is the Basque Country, which at that time, as now, was a transit zone between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of the European continent. “It was paradoxical that being a mandatory step for men and women of that time there was so little rock art”, Garete acknowledges. In 2011, when he began his work, there was a record of only six decorated caves in the entire Basque community, now there are 28 caverns with samples of rock art.

Manuel Gonzalez Morales, a researcher at the International Institute of Prehistoric Research of Cantabria, affirms that Garate’s work has an “extraordinary” archaeological and historical value, because it discovers “more locations with Palaeolithic art in an area that appeared until a few years ago as relatively empty of this type of testimonies ”. Beyond merely aesthetic considerations, González says, these engravings represent “new examples of the use of underground spaces, including some with difficult access, for the development of artistic activity.”

Garate affirms that the discovery of the bison engravings in that region of Spain proves that the populations of the time exchanged ideas, shared graphic expressions and had recurring themes of inspiration and the like. “We discovered that human groups in the area were communicating with each other. For example, they used the same bone tools to sculpt stone. We found remains of these instruments in the same caves where we found the engravings, ”explains Garate.

The study also reveals that they were not the same humans who moved or migrated from one place to another, but that there were networks of contact and exchange. “These bison are proof of what would be a first globalization on a continental scale, from Central Europe to the Iberian Peninsula, something like the first European Union 27,000 million years ago.” For González Morales, Garate’s findings are a manifestation that groups of hunter-gatherers of the Upper Paleolithic made contact with other groups and exchanged technical and stylistic novelties.

One of the main characteristics of these prints is that they do not use perspective as we know it today. “The type of art that developed on the continent 27,000 years ago was expressionist. The artists were not trying to represent reality as it was, but to capture their own interpretation, ”says Garate. For this reason, the animals in these engravings appear disproportionate, have grotesque gestures on their faces, and the representation of their legs and horns is in a single plane, without perspective, without depth, without seeking the third dimension, like the art of Egyptian temples.

Garete explains that the engravings had that style difficult to appreciate today not because humans of the time could not represent them as they saw them, but because there was a way established by society, a norm. “It gives us the feeling that it was a controlled art, subject to rules imposed from power. The artist would be more of a craftsman, he could not do what occurred to him, but what he was ordered to do, it was a collective art, not that of the individual ”.

The question that research has not yet been able to resolve is what function or meaning these engravings had. “There are multiple interpretations, and perhaps there is more than one answer,” acknowledges Garate. “We know that for 30,000 years animals are represented, not plants, nor humans, nor stars. In that period of time there are several different groups, but art is made up of the same theme “, Garate says. And he adds:” We also know that they did not represent the animals that hunted and ate. That makes us think that these engravings have a very strong message, perhaps related to social cohesion, with the need to keep the group together in order to survive ”.

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