Last Friday we presented three new caves with Paleolithic rock-art in the Basque Country (Northern Iberian Peninsula). The discoveries at Aitzbitarte V were made in September 2015 by a joint team composed by archaeologists (Diego Garate- Arkeologi Museoa-, Joseba Rios-Garaizar- CENIEH) and speleologists (Javier Busselo, Giorgio Studer, Sabino Orbegozo, Imanol Errazkin- Felix Ugarte Elkartea). Ten days after the initial discovery Javier Busselo and Giorgio Studer found new figures at Aitzbitarte III and IX. Few days after, the paleolithic nature of these new findings was certified by the archeologists.
At Aitzbitarte V, four engraved bison have been identified in a narrow space at the rear of the cave. The style of these bison is clearly linked with similar representations commonly attributed to Middle Magdalenian art. Some of the figures’ details, for example the hair representation over the snout, are related with bison representations found at the Pyrenean region, for example in the cave of Alkerdi.
At Aitzbitarte III, several bison, a goat, a cervid and a horse head have been identified. The engravings are located in a narrow conduct located in the left wall of the cave, between the excavations made at the end of the XX century by J. Altuna. In this close space, the most striking representation is the head horse, with long ears, engraved in hanging rock that resembles a horse head. These figures have a most probable Gravettian age.
The last set of engravings was found in Aitzbitarte IX. Nowadays, due to the blockage of the original entrance, the cave is only accessible through a 10 m deep hole located at the end of Aitzbitarte III. Here a complete wall section appears marked with longitudinal engravings, and inside these a schematic bison has been depicted. It has some conventions that links it clearly with Gravettian bison representations found at Isturitz and other Northern Pyrenean sites.
The relevance of these findings is huge. Before this discovery Aitzbitarte was already one of the most important set of sites for the study of the Paleolithic in the region. This site is well known from the end of XIX century, having yielded two relevant sites, Aitzbitarte IV and III, excavated by J. M. Barandiarán and J. Altuna respectively. Aitzbitarte IV has a long sequence, and it is one of the key sites to understand the transition between Solutrean and Magdalenian in the Cantabrian Region. At Aitzbitarte III, the Aurignacian-Gravettian transition is represented, but most of all the site is well known by its Middle Gravettian levels, rich in Noaille burins. Also in 2012, some red paintings without any clear animal representation were found at Aitzbitarte IV. These sites are located at the crossroads between the Aquitanian, Cantabrian and Pyrenenan regions, and its archaeological assemblages are clearly related with SW French sites, for example with the mega-site of Isturitz. The discovery of rock-art at these caves opens a new dimension about its function and relevance for Upper Paleolithic populations.
It is also important to note that since the discovery of Askondo in 2011, at least seven new sites with figurative rock art have been discovered in Biscay (Askondo and Lumentxa), and Gipuzkoa (Erlaitz, Danbolinzulo, Aitzbitarte III, V, IX), and many sites have been revisited, including the discovery of new rock-art assemblages as happened recently in Alkerdi (Navarre). These discoveries reflect that rock-art survey has been improved, thanks to new methods and the tight collaboration between archaeologist and speleologist. It has been also important to contradict the idea of a “basque void” in cave art, the gaps are being filling now and probably in the future more sites will be discovered. This also must promote more archaeological research in caves that will be affected by quarries, as happened with Atxuri, nowadays destroyed; was about to happen with Praile Aitz or Askondo; and it is going to happen, if nobody cares, with Alkerdi.