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Notes From Underground

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 prehistory.

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 human technology.

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-
supporting environment.

—Tom Nattell 

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