Thursday, June 18, 2015

20,000-year-old cave art and the north coast of Spain

My sister Nancy and her husband, Tom Lukens, came to visit in May and we spent a good deal of the time on the north coast of Spain. I dragged them along to one of my favorite places, the cave of Altamira, which has paintings dating back as far as 22,000 years ago.

Modern artist's interpretation of an Altamira painting of an aurochs.

You can get a sense of the brilliance of the paintings in the example above. The artists used bulges in the cave walls and ceiling to emphasize the musculature of the aurochs (cattle), deer, and horses they depicted.

Pablo Picasso visited the cave and said, "After Altamira, everything is decadence." The ceiling has been called the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art.

Lifesize replica

The cave was discovered in 1879 when a tree fell and exposed an opening. Archeological work revealed that the cave had not been occupied for 13,000 years. The paintings were created over a span of at least 9 thousand years as different groups occupied the cave.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the site became such a popular tourist attraction that carbon dioxide in the breath of the thousands of visitors damaged the artworks. It was closed to the public in 1977.

The original cave entrance. Human beings stood here 40,000 years ago and entered that cave. (Tom Lukens Photo)

But a lifesize replica of the cave and the art were recreated nearby in a fantastic museum. It displays artifacts and re-creations from some of the dozen or so other major cave sites that dot the north coast and southwestern France. It also has fascinating videos and displays on the creation of the paintings, fashioning of stone and bone tools, and the flora and fauna of the period. (Yawn. Cindy was getting bored despite my enthusiasm.)

The aurochs in several of the most spectacular paintings is an ancestor of domesticated cattle. It was larger than its modern descendants, as much as 6 feet high at the shoulder. Pretty scary. A big meal, but probably tough to bring down.

Some of the newest dating techniques using uranium-thorium dating puts some of the cave art at 35,000-40,000 years old. 

You can zoom in or out on the map by hitting the + and - at the lower right.

Cindy and I, high above San Sebastian. Basque whalers and cod fishermen sailed from here for 1,000 years.

The harbor at Castro Urdiales, a popular seaside getaway. We ate well.

13th century church at Casto Urdiales. The Romans were here first.

Castrio Urdiales. Tourists outnumber fishermen now. Lots of nice hotels and restaurants.

Castro Urdiales. Too chilly for Cindy to swim.
Nancy and I at Olite castle near Pamplona.
Tom and Hemingway statue in Cafe Iruña in Pamplona. He hung out here. Tom did too.
On Camino de Santiago near Pamplona, steel sculptures of pilgrims. We had a nice hike up to this spot, called El Perdón.

Laredo's harbor entrance. As we wandered out, on the streets of Laredo...

The 3-mile-long beach at Laredo. Spectacular setting.

How to spend nine weeks in Europe without losing your shirt
Barcelona's art and architecture make it a favorite
Pamplona: Lots of running, no bulls
Cordoba's main attraction: mix of Jewish, Moorish, Christian cultures 
Basque language has mysterious origins
Andalusia has different flavor from rest of Spain 
Tapas or pinchos are our favorite foods in Spain  
Pilgrims still come to honor St. James in Santiago de Compostela 
We didn't run into a lot of Americans in Spain

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