Stringy vines, grasses and other vegetation hung down over
the opening into the earth and ferns rose thickly from the
ground near the cave’s entrance. I went down into the subterranean
coolness, entering a deep cavern of water-carved limestone.
While, outside, the summer air temperature hovered around
90 degrees, inside the cave it was in the 50s and damp. While,
outside, the sun periodically broke through a cloud cover
brightening the lush green of the coastal mountains, inside
there was a dense darkness. I used my flashlight to follow
a slick and worn stone path.
Reflected light penetrated only a short distance into the
cave, giving life to tough vegetation that rooted claims to
precarious islands of soil scattered amid clusters of fallen
rock. Lichen and moss clung to stone, powered by the dim light.
A sole, twisting vine dropped down from above the cave’s entrance,
into the fading light zone and toward the rocky floor. As
I moved deeper into the cave, I soon left what natural light
and sounds there were behind, and a quiet darkness filled
the space. Here and there dripping water could be heard.
The cave I had entered is called El Pindal. It is located
near the town of Pimiango, along the northern coast of Spain.
This is an area riddled with caves carved by water. At one
time, El Pindal had actually been a channel for an underground
river that emptied into the Bay of Biscayne. Where once a
river ran, now only dampness, an occasional small pool and
scattered points of dripping water remain. The high vaulting
ceiling of the cave, its sculptured walls and the rugged debris
of large fallen stones attest to the power of water.
Caves have always been magical places for me. When I was a
young kid growing up on the California coast, there were a
number of shallow caves eroded into the shale cliffs along
the shore near where I lived. I would enter them and fantasize
about pirates, entrances into subterranean worlds of mystery
and early native peoples eating food from the sea and telling
stories around fires of burning driftwood. But, these caves
along Spain’s northern coast were quite different from those
I’d known in California. They went far deeper into the darkness
of the earth. They also went back much further into human
I had gone into El Pindal cave with my two 20-something kids
and a group of about 20 people led by a guide. Many of the
caves in northern Spain have limited human access to keep
down the damage caused by our huffing and puffing through
these underworlds. El Pindal is limited to 200 people per
day (Altamira, Spain’s most famous cave, is now closed to
visitors for at least a couple of years due to damage caused
by visitors). My kids and I hung out at the rear of the group
so we could take our time and check out the cave a little
more along the way. I carried a tape recorder to take notes
on the subterranean hike (no cameras were allowed).
The cave consisted of a series of connected large “rooms.”
Each room had a unique configuration of stalactites (from
the ceiling) and stalagmites (from the floor), columns (when
a stalactite meets a stalagmite), chandeliers, draperies and
sheets of stone. These details were carved by the persistent
action of dripping water laden with calcite and other minerals.
Some of the stone sparkled as if dusted with crystals when
struck by the light of my flashlight. Large chunks of dark
rock were scattered along much of the cavern’s floor.
Eventually, our guide stopped at a wall of rock. Here, a variety
of animal figures had been painted in a dark red hue. Our
guide ran her flashlight across the stone surface and its
red paintings, pointing out details. This is what I had trudged
through the darkness to see: paintings from the Paleolithic.
The Upper Paleolithic (the most recent times of the Old Stone
Age) dates between 35,000 and 12,000 years ago. El Pindal’s
paintings are from this period, dating somewhere between 13,000
and 18,000 years into the past.
In the center of one grouping of paintings was a well-preserved
profile of a horse’s head with a full mane done in thick red
lines. It had been done by humans who hiked at least a hundred
yards down this dark cavern more than 13,000 years ago. It
was a time when stone was still a dominant raw material in
Instead of flashlights, the painters used simple concave pieces
of stone shaped into crude lamps that burned animal fat through
plant fiber wicks. Burning animal fat provided a bright and
relatively smokeless flame. These ancient painters lit their
lamps against the darkness to create red images of cold-weather
animals that included horses, bison and what appears to be
the outline of a mammoth.
The people who painted these animals on the cave’s stone did
not live in El Pindal. They apparently came to this cave from
elsewhere to create these paintings. There has been no evidence
found to indicate people lived in El Pindal around the time
the paintings were done. This cave apparently had a specialized
function, possibly related to the animal images left behind
under the protective cover of its darkness.
Some believe that these paintings were part of a ritual life
focused on ensuring the continuity of life for animal species
upon which these people depended. The space where the paintings
were located may have been very sacred to its Paleolithic
visitors. Perhaps it was a place where people of those times
connected with an important spirit world. While we may never
know the real reasons for these paintings, we do know they
have been preserved by the cave’s cool darkness. Perhaps they
should also be considered a message from the distant past
meant to remind us about the importance of revering our life-