Whilst the coastal strip here in the south of Spain is heavily populated, an hour or so in the car and a very different far more rural Spain can be reached. Ronda is an old mountain town with many attractions and well worth a visit for its own sake, however the nearby Parque Natural Sierra de Grazalema and the Cuevas de La Pileta were the focus of this trip.
The caves were discovered in 1902 by a local farmer Jose Lobato Bullon. Sr Bullon spotted bats emerging from a cliff face near his home, one evening. Hoping to find a good source of bat guano to fertilise his fields Sr Bullon let himself down the cliff face on a rope made from esparto grass to the entrance of the Cave of the Pool where he found remains of ceramic pots, bones and some cave paintings.
The Bullon family still has the rights to manage the caves and descendants of Jose Lobato Bullon are still guiding tours there.
Cuevas de La Pileta contain some of the best cave paintings in Spain. Human and animal remains, pottery and of spectacular stalagmites and stalactites have also been found here. Coming from such a young country as New Zealand, being able to view prehistory up close and personal is a privilege. What surprised me was how close we were able to get to the images and how expressive some of the lines were. The paintings range from approximately 40,000 to 10,000 years old. There is some debate over the exact age – new techniques measuring the amount of calcification over the images are suggesting the earliest ones may be up to 50,000 years old. Staggering. The cave hasn’t been continuously occupied for the whole of that time but 30,000 or so years of use is incredible when you compare it to the lifespan of a modern home.
Whilst there were some beautiful expressive paintings of animals many of the images were comprised of rows of criss crosses and random lines. Experts surmise that some of these were early attempts at calendars. Or perhaps just a prehistoric version of “Kilroy was here” – caveman graffiti (my theory)! What surprised me the most were the paintings of fish and seals. Given that the caves would be an estimated two or three day walk from the sea, the ability of that early artist to hold an image in their mind and faithfully reproduce it with rudimentary materials is impressive.
The fact that people with so few material possessions and living in such a difficult environment felt the need to create art shows how important creativity is to mankind. We have been making art from our earliest most primitive days. Politicians who would cut funding to the arts would do well to take note. Art is not a luxury. It has been a necessity from our earliest times.