The oldest known cave paintings in existence are about 32,000 years old!
Cave art can be found in South Africa, southeast Asia, India, and the Americas. But the density of cave art is most in Europe, specifically in France and Spain. During my pre-trip research I discovered that one such cave, with paintings predating the ice age, existed a few kilometers from Ronda, I immediately stuck a “must go” pin on the map.
On our way to Zahara from Ronda, we turned into the village of Benoajan on the Gaucin-Ronda road. The office of the caves was still locked as I had read it would be. We climbed the steep stairs and waited outside the circular opening of the cave under a little thatched shed, as were told we should.
The caves are owned privately by the Bullón family since they were discovered by their patriarch José Bullón Lobato. The family has treated the caves as a precious heirloom and has zealously guarded it through hard times: When the crops in the farm failed, thieves repeatedly raided the caves in search of the mythical gold and the Spanish government’s attempts to take over this national treasure.
Finally, our tour guides arrived. They collected the tour fees and handed over hissing kerosene lanterns to be used in the caves where there is no electricity. Fortunately, I had bought myself a portable headlamp, miner style, and it turned out to be a very handy investment.
The tour guide took us almost three quarters of a mile inside the belly of the hill. It is pretty cool inside the caves, the temperature dropping a good 7-8 degrees. The path is pretty easy but for a few spots that are wet and were slippery. A light sweatshirt and flat walking shoes are highly recommended.
Photography, unfortunately, is not allowed beyond a certain point inside the caves. Yes, frequent exposure to powerful light emanating from the flash can deteriorate colors in the pigments of the paintings. Yes, a tripod can hamper crowd movement in tight spaces like caves and museums. I hope, they realize that DSLRs have come a long way and at high ISO’s, it is possible to hand-hold a good photo without having to resort to a flash or a tripod.
I grudgingly capped my lens. Sometimes, the best images are to be captured by the eye and stored in the head.
The tour lasted a good 45 minutes. The air was humid and smelled musty, of moss and bat dung, in that refreshing sort of a way. We followed the guide faithfully, over the uneven – often slippery floor – stopping frequently when she raised her lantern to reveal beautifully rendered multi-millennia old artistry. The figures portrayed on the walls were often undistinguishable until explained. Once discerned, they gave a fascinating hint at what was running through the minds of the ancient dwellers.
After all, life must have been tough in the pre-ice age era. Getting a fire going itself must have been a monumental effort. The ancient men would have to set out every day to hunt and gather food. They had no way to systematically cure illness and injuries. They had no scheme to tackle the vagaries of mother nature. I wondered: why did the Cro-Magnon paint their caves?
The Pregnant Mare
(Photo courtesy: https://biocortijo.com/en/2010/11/21/cueva-de-la-pileta/)
They painted what they saw, did or imagined.
Painted in brilliant ochre, red, orange, white and black – easily accessible oxides, calcium and soot, the most commonly occurring subject of the art are the domestic animals. Horses, bulls, cow, sheep; animals the ancient men saw often, depended upon and even loved. You frequently see hunting scenes – human stick figures with raised spears, an archer in action – the tension in his back and his bow apparent. Occasionally, you see the print of the hand. And seemingly random patterns & doodles - zig-zag, criss-cross lines and spirals.
I particularly enjoyed a section of the wall covered with lines, angles and notched segments. Resembling the mast of a ship, they could easily have been an early study in geometry or a lunar calendar, musings of an empty mind or religious emblems. (For historians and archeologists, anything that cannot be explained or discerned is piled into the religious/cult/devotional bucket.)
(Photo: Courtesy Radio Set Launch)
Cave art anywhere in the world, the human being in true life form is missing. Invariably, the men and women are depicted as stick figures, a phenomenon that has led the anthropologists and archeologists worldwide to wonder if depicting human beings was a ubiquitous taboo of the times.
Coming back to the question – Why were they painting? Definitely not for decorative purpose, the primitive man was still lingering at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. Is it a hieroglyphic script? Documentation of a brave act? A marker of time? A warning? An offerings to an unknown force? A confession of their acts? A confrontation of their fear? pure veneration? Religious? Cult? Too many questions. No answers.
The pregnant mare (photo above) is probably the most astonishing painting in the cave system. Unfortunately, the route to the painting is deemed dangerous for a visitor and one has to do with pictures taken by lucky ones.
My personal favorite is the giant fish, that I had the opportunity and pleasure to witness with my very own eyes.
The Giant Fish
(Photo: Courtesy Radio Set Launch)
Jose Bullon Gimenez describes the discovery of this painting in his book, “The Pileta Caves”, The “he” in the paragraph below goes by the name José Bullón Lobato. He discovered the caves in 1905 and is the author’s grandfather.
He had to wade the pool to cross it, getting wet in the process. When he reached the other side he was astounded when his lamplight seemed to suddenly disappear. There was nothing wrong with his equipment, however, he realized, to his amazement, that the light didn’t reach the far walls of the cave. He was in the largest, highest chamber he had seen so far. Many of the symbols he saw painted on the wall there were now beginning to seem familiar to him, but not so the “Great fish” which, for its size and realism, left him breathless, making him wonder once again, about the people who had once lived there.
And that is how we were when we climbed down the steep stair to reach our car. Breathless and wondering about the people who had lived here one, long long time ago.