El Castillo: Cave of the Castle

Today in class Ethan mentioned the Cave of El Castillo, which directly translates to Cave of the Castle. El Castillo is located in the town of Puente Viesgo, which is in the Cantabria region of what is now Spain. It is one of many caves located in four cavities of the Monte El Castillo. The Cave of El Castillo was discovered by Spanish archaeologist  Hermilio Alcalde del Rio in 1903.  Hermilio Alcalde del Rio also aided in the excavation of other caves in the Cantabria region.

What makes El Castillo so important is that it contains the oldest cave paintings in Europe found thus far. The paintings date back to 40,800 years ago. Surprisingly, the oldest painting in El Castillo is a single red dot. El Castillo contains over 275 cave paintings, painted in black, red, and yellow pigments. These paintings include depictions of horses, bison, mammoths, deer, goats, and even some human figures. One of the most famous pieces of art in El Castillo is the Panel de las Manos, or the Panel of Hands. The Panel of Hands contains forty red ochre hand stencils made by placing a hand on the wall and blowing paint over it to create the outline.

Scientists were puzzled on how to date the cave paintings found in El Castillo. They could not use traditional methods, like radiocarbon dating, because the pigments were not organic. Radiocarbon dating is also only reliable for up to about 35,000 years. Researchers ended up looking at the stalactites that formed on top of the paintings. They were able to date these by using the military science technique of looking at the radioactive decay of uranium in the calcite. The uranium decay told them that the art had to be at least as old as the stalactite formation, if not older. This method of studying uranium decay was actually quite successful and has led to other archaeological discoveries.

El Castillo has been preserved quite well. One of the only changes was widening the original opening to help archaeological excavation efforts. Spain’s culture ministry has actually kept El Castillo open to a limited number of visitors per day, contrary to the caves of Lascaux and Chauvert located in France. El Castillo is one of the two caves (Las Monedas being the other) in Monte El Castillo you can visit. For just three euros you can take a tour of El Castillo and experience Paleolithic history for yourself.