Some 25,000 long years ago, the cold rock of the caves became a canvas for prehistoric people. Using vegetable-derived colours and their fingers as paintbrushes, they drew everyday hunting scenes and religious imagery. Fortunately, many of these artworks have survived intact to this day. Cave paintings have been found all over the world; one of the finest examples, however, is in Asturias, in the famous Tito Bustillo Cave in Ribadesella.
Twelve sets of artworks, distributed throughout the 700m-long cave and side galleries, make up Tito Bustillo’s hidden treasure. Paintings, engravings of symbols, animals, anthropomorphic imagery… Together, they form a small, underground museum which gives us an idea of what life might have been like for those Palaeolithic men and women.
This prehistoric gem was discovered in 1968 by members of the Torreblanca Mountaineering Club from Oviedo, together with two young people from the local area. They found the paintings by chance after descending a small pit cave known as Pozu’l Ramu in the Ardines Massif. Nowadays, we know that the inside of this limestone mountain range houses a vast cave network formed by the underground course of the San Miguel River. And one of these caves is Tito Bustillo, named after a member of the team who discovered it and died just days later in a mountaineering accident.
The discovery of the Tito Bustillo caves was particularly significant given the quality and quantity of the works they contain; they are, according to experts, on a par with the most important Palaeolithic sites found to date in Europe. Proof of this is the fact that they were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
The cave art here is grouped into twelve different sets, containing over 100 images painted and engraved on the walls. The works vary across different eras and also overlap, depending on the will of those who inhabited this cave over 20,000 years ago.
Researchers estimate that most of the drawings can be divided into two stages: Pre-magdalenian, with a wealth of red symbols and occasional animal forms, and Magdalenian, with a range of zoomorphic figures and different techniques. In any case, although it is difficult to estimate a date, all of them are from the Palaeolithic period between 22,000 and 10,000 BC.
Among the different paintings that have been discovered, the Main Panel Hall stands out for the sheer number of images as well as their variety in terms of style and technique. This area contains: 30 deer, 13 horses, nine reindeer, five goats, four bisons, one auroch, two unidentified animals, 17 symbols and 10 lines, which are difficult to interpret. They belong to different eras and together constitute a set of cave paintings that is practically unique. Of all the prehistoric art found in Tito Bustillo, this is one of the few sets that is accessible and can be viewed by visitors.
Other highlights include the Gallery of Horses, which contains various, highly realistic figures carved into the rock, and the Chamber of Vulvas, whose walls display drawings of a sexual nature, very rare in the Palaeolithic artworks discovered until now.
With the aim of preserving the cave and conserving its artistic treasures, and given the difficult access to most of the paintings inside, the Tito Bustillo Centre for Prehistoric Art was set up. Here, visitors can learn about when the cave was discovered, its geological importance, who lived there and what the cave art inside it looks like.
After seeing the exhibition, visitors are left in no doubt that Ribadesella was one of the cradles of Palaeolithic civilisation at a global level and a very significant settlement in Europe. Hundreds of generations of primitive men and women, our ancestors, lived and evolved in this corner of Asturias.
In prehistoric times, life in this area centred on the Tito Bustillo Cave; in the present day, it has become a magnet for researchers and visitors keen to contemplate the artworks of our most distant past.
Aside from being world-famous for its prehistoric art, Ribadesella is a beautiful coastal town closely linked to fishing and seafaring life. Its past is engraved, like that of its prehistoric inhabitants, although this time on the wall panels along the Paseo de Grúa created by the famous cartoonist and graphic artist, Antonio Mingote. They represent everyday scenes from life in the town over the ages: trade at the port during the Roman Empire, whale hunting in the Middle Ages or the salting industry during the Renaissance. This historical walkway stretches along the port side and is an ideal way to understand the traditions and culture of the place.
If you’re in Ribadesella, it’s also worth heading for the cliffs to view the dinosaur footprints. They’re 150 million years old and are considered among the most important Jurassic remains in Spain.
There’s no doubt that this town, caressed by the fresh waters of the River Sella and the salt waves of the Cantabrian Sea, overlooked in the distance by the Picos de Europa, has a special kind of charm and plenty to see. It’s a location brimming with nature, tradition and culture but most of all, plenty of history.
Information and tickets: www.centrotitobustillo.com