Cave paintings at the Altxerri cave system in the Basque region of northern Spain are about 39,000 years old, making them some of the oldest in Europe, Popular Archaeology reports.
A team of French and Spanish scientists analyzed the paintings, which include images such as the bison shown here, as well as finger marks, a feline, a bear, an unidentified animal head and more abstract markings. This early dating of these images puts them in the Aurignacian Period, believed by most archaeologists to be the first flowering of modern humans in the region, although whether or not there were still Neanderthals in the area at this time is an open question.
A later set of paintings in another part of the cave system, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, date from “only” 29,000-35,000 years ago.
By comparison, the art at Cauvet Cave in France is about 31,000 years old, although it is of a much higher quality. The beautiful paintings there were the subject of Herzog’s breathtaking 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
Want to be an explorer? Want to see places nobody has ever seen? You have three options: become an astronaut, become a deep-sea diver or become a caver.
The first isn’t going to happen for a man my age and the second is expensive, so it’s a good thing I live in one of the best regions in the world to do the third. Cantabria in northern Spain has a large amount of karst, a type of stone that often has caves.
One of them is Luna Llena (“Full Moon”), which has yet to be fully mapped. In my fourth caving expedition in Spain I was part of a team that went to look for new passages. I was thrilled. Seeing unexplored parts of the subterranean world was one of the reasons I got into caving. I didn’t think the payoff would come so quickly.
Luna Llena is at the bottom of an abandoned galena mine from the 1920s. The miners were blasting with dynamite one day and opened up a hole into an unknown cave. It’s been regularly explored ever since but there are still many blank spots on its map.
The mineshaft slopes sharply down into the bedrock. Walking along an old narrow-gauge track past ore wagons and rusted equipment, we soon arrived at the cave. There were four of us, two experienced cavers who would be doing the bulk of the mapping, myself, and another relative newbie named Nacho. I quickly discovered that this would be the toughest cave I’d faced in any country.Karst often forms narrow, deep passageways, the product of underground streams cutting away the stone. These passageways can be five, ten, a hundred meters high. There’s no real floor, just a gradual narrowing until you reach water at the bottom. The only way to traverse these is a technique called “chimneying,” in which you straddle the passage with a hand and a foot on each wall. If it gets a bit too wide you press your feet against one wall and your back against the other. You keep tied into a rope running along the wall so you don’t risk falling into the abyss.
This workout led to a payoff – a low chamber filled with soda straws, thin little tubes hanging on the ceiling that eventually form stalactites. We had to crawl on our hands and knees below these beautiful formations for several minutes before getting to a place where we could stand up.
A little more exploring brought us to a long, high passageway. Several small tunnels led away from it, several blanks on the map. We picked one and crawled inside.
This is where it really got interesting. We were off the map in a place nobody had ever seen. Sadly I didn’t have my camera. My Instamatic died the previous week and I wasn’t going to risk my SLR in these conditions. Nacho brought his, but since he was behind me the only shots he got of me were of the bottom of my boots. The tunnel was too small for anything else.
It was almost too small for us to move. Crawling along in a military low crawl, the tops of our helmets scraping against the roof, we came to a spot where the tunnel pinched.
One of the more experienced cavers turned and looked at me.
“You sure you want to do this?” she asked. “Stop and think about it.”
“Of course I want to do it.”
“You’re not claustrophobic?” she asked.
“If I was claustrophobic I would have started freaking out ten meters ago.”
She shrugged and wormed her way into the tunnel. I gave her time to get through and then went in myself. The only way to enter this part was to have both arms stretched out ahead of me. Even then my shoulders barely made it through. I edged my way forward with my forearms and feet, the tunnel pressing in on all sides. Breathing became difficult. There wasn’t enough room to inhale fully, but I was exerting myself and needed the air. Every move was an effort. I wondered if I would make it through. I didn’t panic, though. My only worry was that Nacho was going to have to grab my boots and haul me out.
Any lingering doubt that I have claustrophobia was snuffed out when my headlamp suffered the same fate. An outcropping in the rock hit the power button and the tiny space I was in plunged into darkness.
It didn’t matter. I hadn’t been seeing anything but the rock an inch in front of my nose anyway. Continuing by feel, I made it to a slightly wider part of the tunnel where I could bend my arm and switch on my light. Ahead of me was an even tinier tunnel turning at an acute angle. The caver ahead of me called back.
“Come on through. It’s like a second birth!”
The birth canal I actually had to push off with my legs and force my body through. I exhaled, crushing my chest as flat as it could go. My head and arms emerged in a little cyst in which sat two of our team. Another push and my shoulders made it. A final effort to get the stomach through, swearing all the way to give up beer. I felt the cave walls pressing against my stomach and the small of my back and then I let out a tremendous fart. The cave literally squeezed it out of me.
Poor Nacho. He was right behind me and had nowhere to run. I hoped he didn’t asphyxiate. He was my ride.
We all gathered in the cyst, Nacho looking a bit green around the gills. During all this time our more experienced leaders had been mapping the passageway. Now we got a chance. This was basic mapping, with a compass, tape measure, and clinometer. It was meticulous work in cramped conditions, yet highly rewarding. All my life I’ve studied maps, especially old ones with their tempting blank spots marked Terra Incognita. And now here I was in Subterra Incognita.
I studied every fissure and formation, hoping to find another passage branching away form the one we were in. None were wide enough to push through. The tunnel soon turned back and rejoined one of the main mapped passageways. We’d mapped maybe a couple of hundred meters. In the annals of discovery this is a very minor footnote. I didn’t care. It made all the scrapes and bruises worth it.
So if you want to be an explorer, consider caving. It’s not as hard as you think. I’m 43 years old and only moderately fit. Chances are you can do what I do. If you live in the U.S., the best way to get into it is to join the National Speleological Society. With more than 10,000 members and about 250 local chapters (called “grottoes”), there’s probably a group near you.
The second of May is a date that every Spaniard knows. In 1808 on that date, the Spanish people rose up against Napoleon and started a long struggle to kick his troops out of the country. They’d been occupied the year before when Spain’s weak king had foolishly allowed French troops march through his territory to invade Portugal. Napoleon, being Napoleon, decided to keep both countries.
The Peninsular War, as it was called, was long and bloody. At first the Spaniards were outmatched, but they developed an effective guerrilla war that stymied the invaders. In fact the term guerrilla (“little war”) originated in this conflict. The English moved in to help and in 1814 their combined forces kicked Napoleon’s troops back into France.
All across Spain in the first week of May, communities hold festivals to commemorate battles and celebrate local heroes. Here in Cantabria in northern Spain, the municipality of Camargo holds a reenactment in honor of Pedro Velarde y Santillán, an artillery captain who was born in the town and died heroically on the first day of the uprising.
Camargo is a small place that most foreigners and even locals miss. We’ve lived ten minutes away from it for a year and we had to look up how to get there. Despite this obscurity, they put on a good show. A big street fair sold food and local crafts. Strangely there was French cheese and wine for sale, a rarity in a country with enough excellent cheese and wine that there’s no need for imports. I suppose it was in the spirit of the occasion.
%Gallery-187602%Modern and traditional stalls sat side by side. Kids took burro rides while their parents looked through traditional clothing or modern trinkets made by local craftsmen. A local Moroccan restaurant had even set up a tea stall and hookah stand. Why not? Some Moroccans ended up in both armies. I wasn’t too happy to see a mother let her 10-year-old boy take a toke from a hooka, though. You should keep dangerous, addictive drugs like tobacco away from children.
In a nearby park reenactors portraying Spanish and French troops drilled and answered questions from curious onlookers, while a fencing master gave sword-fighting tips to the kids. Soon the reenactors marched into town, firing off their flintlock muskets with an ear-splitting roar. French cavalrymen rode around the crowd shouting to the Spaniards that they were going to occupy the country forever and sleep with all the women. The Spaniards called them “sons of whores.” All in good fun.
So if you’re passing through Spain in early May, keep an eye out for one of these festivals. There’s an especially big one in Madrid, which was the flashpoint of the uprising, but you can find them in most regions, even in little towns like Camargo that you’ve never heard of.
Green Spain has finally emerged from a miserable winter into a glorious if unreliable springtime, so it’s time to get out and enjoy the region’s natural beauty.
The northern coastal strip of Spain consisting of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Region has the best outdoor and underground adventures the country has to offer. Its combination of scenic hikes and extensive caves is thanks to the predominance of karst, a type of stone the weathers quickly with water. As you can see from the picture above, rain turns exposed karst into strange, picturesque shapes. When water flows underground it carves out long caves.
One of the best places to see this at work is the Parque Natural de Collados del Asón in Cantabria. Less than an hour’s drive from both Santander and Bilbao, this 11,700-acre natural park is cut through by the Asón River and several smaller streams. Those and the frequent rainfall have scoured the terrain into a series of gorges and cliffs. A network of trails provides lowland rambles past traditional farmhouses and challenging climbs up to rugged and snowy peaks. The dark mouths of several caves beckon to you from the trailside, but these aren’t places to explore without training and preparation.
The weather was glorious the day we went. When you have a fine day here in the north, you get outside. Luckily, you don’t need good weather to get some exercise. The next time I went out we were pelted with a chilly northern rain, perfect conditions to explore Green Spain’s other outdoor attractions – its caves.
Caving is big here, with several organizations and adventure travel companies ready to show you the ropes. And for many caves, ropes are what you’ll need. As water cuts through the stone, it often finds fissures and plunges downwards, gradually widening them into vertical shafts. Rappelling into Stygian darkness is one of the best thrills caving has to offer.
One cave where you don’t actually need ropes is Cotera Cave, not far from the famous prehistoric painted cave of Altamira, 20 minute’s drive outside of Santander. The entrance isn’t terribly inviting – an almost invisible trail snarled with brambles leads to a low opening where cows take shelter from the rain. Cows, being cows, have left more than their hoof prints behind.
%Gallery-186970%Picking out way past the cow patties we turned a corner and entered a large chamber. Sadly, the walls were covered with graffiti. The vandals weren’t very adventurous, though, and we soon left their ugliness behind.
Cotera is a wet cave. For much of the route we sloshed through ankle-deep water as more dripped on us from above. This action creates the formations that make caves so alluring. Cotera appears to be a fairly young cave since there aren’t many large stalactites or stalagmites. Instead, we had baby formations in the form of soda straws, which with enough water leaving mineral deposits on them will eventually grow into stalactites.
At times, the cave narrowed down into tiny crawlspaces we had to worm our way through. Often these shafts took lung-crushing right turns or plunged down at 45 degrees so that we scooted down slick clay into a welcoming puddle. In this sport a “taste of adventure” tastes like wet clay, and the grit gets stuck between your teeth.
Once the cave had covered us in grime, it decided to wash us off by making us crawl along an underground stream with a low roof. There was no choice but to get on our hands and knees and splash trough chilly water. We spotted a couple of underwater passageways leading off into the unknown.
We let them stay a mystery. Cave diving – a combination of spelunking and scuba diving – is extremely dangerous and best left for the truly crazy.
The caves in Spain are famous for their variety and extent. Some delve more than a kilometer into the ground. Others are adorned with prehistoric cave art more than 10,000 years old. Almost all have beautiful rock formations. There’s a whole other world under the one we usually see.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m taking a course on caving. My first experience was in Cañuela cave, an easy cave suitable for beginners. Last weekend we went to Coventosa in a remote valley in the Sierra de Cantabria, a tougher cave system that requires more rope work.
The first challenge is what you see in this photo. Here I am worming my way into a little tunnel that slopes down at a steep angle. As you can see I’m tied in with a pair of carabiners attached by ropes to my harness. Why? Because at the end, the tunnel opens out onto the edge of a cliff. Start sliding uncontrollably down this tunnel and you could fly right off the cliff, fall ten meters and smash into a bunch of jagged rocks.
Coventosa is an active cave with some amazing formations. Water seeping through cracks in the rock leaves mineral deposits that harden into stone. Over vast periods of time, these accumulated deposits create stalactites, stalagmites, columns and other formations. Several walls were full of shellfish fossils, evidence that the area was once underwater. Exploring caves gives you an appreciation for how incredibly old yet constantly changing our planet is.
%Gallery-183046%Normally as the water drips down it will create a stalactite hanging from the ceiling. The water hits the floor below, leaving more deposits to create a stalagmite rising from the ground. Eventually these two features will meet to form a column.
If the water is dripping more slowly, sometimes instead of a stalactite you’ll get a soda straw, which looks exactly like what it’s called. These tend to hang straight down or at a bit of an angle if the water is pushed by an air current. Some soda straws eventually turn into stalactites, while others cling to the side of existing stalactites and grow at crazy angles, with the water seemingly defying gravity. There are various theories as to how this could happen, which means that scientists really don’t know what’s going on. We still have a lot to learn about our world.
Caves are one of the last frontiers left to us for exploration. New caves are being discovered every year, and additional tunnels in existing caves are being explored regularly. Caving is pretty much the only way a regular person can discover a previously unseen part of the world.
While I’m years away from that level of skill, the caves in Spain are already giving me a taste of that feeling. How many people have been to the Beach, a stretch of sand next to an underground lake so large that it defied my attempts to photograph it? Or visited the Ghosts and the Virgin Mary, a cluster of eerie stalagmites in one of the deepest parts of Coventosa Cave?
Then there was my favorite, a low gallery with a forest of columns half submerged in water. Our lights couldn’t penetrate to the far wall. As we crouched there, one of the students asked how far it extended. The instructor said it didn’t go much further than we could see and was sealed off by a rock fall at the end. That made me wonder – what if we took away the rocks? Was there a tunnel on the other side? Where would it lead?
Passing between these sights got tricky at times. On one cliff we had to tie into the rope, get around a difficult outcropping, then secure our protection to a second rope. Going up that same route was even more difficult and a couple of us (myself included) made the rest wait as we fiddled around trying to find the best way to do it.
While caving can be physically demanding, it requires more balance and focus than pure strength. The best student in our class is a young woman who is a foot shorter than I am, who flies up and down the ropes with far more ease, and an obvious natural talent. This is a sport that any reasonably fit person can do.
Even so, by the end of the day we were all worn out. As we emerged from the cave entrance we were greeted by the deep blue sky of evening. We’d been in the cave for nine hours and the day had passed us by. Jupiter and a crescent moon shone high above the peaks. In that other world you lose track of time. Now that I’m back in the regular world with its sky and its clocks, I’m marking time again until next Saturday, when I’ll try an even more challenging cave.