It’s a short drive down into Ronda’s ravine, then back up a small mountainside by foot to get to the new entrance of La Pileta Cave. There are roughhewn stairs set into the hill to help travelers find the entrance the site where, 500m into the rock face, our prehistoric ancestors once dwelled. But it wasn’t an easy hike, especially considering I’d already hiked the ravine back in Ronda the day before.
But I make it to the top, to an unceremonious iron gate that looks something between a Resistance friendly steam tunnel entrance and a bootlegger’s storehouse. It is actually there to bar people from getting in to the cave without supervision, and is the entrance to the office and the gift shop. Both are inside the cave, which I find a clever economy of space.
Our guide that day speaks good English and informs us to please watch our step – where we’re going, there’s no natural light. Before we go much further, he lays out some ground rules – everyone must carry a lantern, which he passes out to us. No touching anything, an unsurprising and standard rule inside caves (even touching just the rock face can leave oil and damage the tracks the water takes to form stalactites. These caves are heavy and the open space is vast, he tells us, and one day it won’t be able to support its own weight anymore. We would like to delay that as long as possible).
There will be no photography, either. Not only is it bad for the art, the same reason museums have this policy, but the sensors are bad for the many hundreds of bats who are in residence. So we pocket our phones. After all, we’re in their home, it wouldn’t do to be rude.
Though it’s mid-September, and in Andalucía that means just this side of roasting hot, as soon as we start into the cave I start feeling clammy. I see why Jose – that is, our guide – told us to watch our step; everything, every surface of the limestone is slick with a slight and slippery alkaline water sheen. We move slowly up the carved stairs, which had been cut into the rock during previous periods of exploration and excavation.
One of the first caves we come to is called the Gallery of Bats. The ceiling is far too high to see any of them, but we are assured that they are there. As they are asleep at 3pm, as good little nocturnal creatures should be, we don’t even hear them chittering. For some guests that is probably a good thing.
The next room on the open circuit (we pass a few small tunnels that Jose tells us are restricted access due to slipping or rock slide hazards), is the Castle Room. It is named for the incredible rock formations that do honestly look like castle turrets. I wonder who could have lived here before? It’s already growing cold and so dark I feel miles beneath the earth. In reality, we’ve only gone in about a hundred meters.
They call this cave Pileta, meaning pool, and in the third ‘room’ I see why. To my right, over a flimsy rope strung along precariously posted rebar, is a deep cave pool. The water is dark, until I shine my lantern over it, and I see that the water is perfectly clear. But the lantern only penetrates so far, and beyond the weak reach of the light I imagine eyeless fish sliding around unseen. Jose tells us there are no fish in these waters, but with the echoes of water dripping and the occasional groaning of the rock, the darkness and the awareness of vast, empty, cold space around me, I find it easy to perceive some eldritch monstrosity waiting in the caverns. I shiver – but it’s mostly with delight.
It’s about this time that we start to see cave paintings. Running animals, symbols no one can discern the true meaning of. Like all prehistoric caves, animals, especially in motion, is a continued motif. In the central nave there are several depictions of what appear to be horses. As to what the symbols mean, well, the automatic go to is fertility. It’s always the easiest to assume that, the guide explained, but realistically there is no hard evidence.
The paintings are red and black and caper across the walls haphazardly. The guide informs us that most of these paintings probably date to the Solutrean period, that is, the Upper Paleolithic about 25,000-20,000 years ago. These paintings are the origins of art. One has to wonder, were they for didactic purposes? Showing the youngers how to hunt and forage? Warnings? Or just for the pure fun of drawing them?
From the central nave to the Hall of the Fish, as they call it, we see many more drawings, and other evidences of human occupation. It seems to me, and the guide confirms, that the occupation was aggregate, meaning it was not only one people at one time that used this cave for shelter. There is evidence of bone disposal and rock deposits – the kind you find when early peoples make stone tools and discard the flakes they don’t need. There is also evidence of fires having burned in alcoves, and some smoke residue still on the walls. Somehow the atmosphere of the cave has preserved all of this, and it’s aweing.
We’re almost 400m back now and it has taken us a while, carefully stepping, sometimes slipping, to navigate our way back here. We would have been in total darkness had it not been for the lanterns. I try to imagine any diurnal creature living in here, indeed, ones that make art and share meals. The space is certainly big enough to house a whole community, but how could anyone bear living in this kind of dank cold? It’s Tolkienian. I expect something slinky to coalesce beside me and ask me riddles in the dark.
Finally we arrive at the last chamber of the cave, well, the last one we’re able to visit. The final chamber, Jose says, is too dangerous to go into, the same as the subterranean caves that run beneath us (at several points during our 45 minute long trek I have had creeping moments of realization that there is only one layer of rock between us and the yawning caverns beneath the ones I’m already in. The weight of the mountain bears down on me in those moments). In this final chamber we see the famous Fish. It’s a pretty good rendering. Even though some of these drawings seem crude, the sense of motion and proportion is not bad, especially considering they’re drawn on uneven limestone. Probably better than I could do!
The Fish solidifies the idea that these caves are from the Solutrean period, which was around the time fishing as a human practice was beginning to develop. There are other depictions of fish across southern Spain in caves near to this one from the same period. But none as big and as well preserved as this one.
Around the Fish (as you can see) are a lot of hash marks. The other animals have them too, some that seem to correspond with the animal drawing, some that are simply hash marks by themselves. Common postulation is a numerical notation, or a calendar. Seems logical enough.
There is also an alcove that is wall to wall, floor to ceiling covered in rough depictions of what appear to be female genitalia. ‘Fertility’ the guide says again. Fertility is always the going theory. Someone asks whether or not this could be seen as a form of religion. The guide, nor I, am completely convinced. Begging for luck or associating symbols with a human event (such as drawings of female genitails with healthy childbirth), does not a religion make (despite a ‘venus’ having been found in the Gallery of Bats. It is an hourglass shaped creation that looks more like a bowtie than a venus, so it’s intention is much more debatable than the obvious alcove of genitalia). There isn’t any hard evidence of religious practice, so it might be a stretch to call this, ah, coital corner a belief in a Goddess. Could it have been? Could it have been the precursor to a more complex and fleshed out belief system? Anything’s possible, but no one really knows.
As the guide is explaining this someone next to me nudges me. Jose’s got a flashlight, not a lantern, and it’s resting on his shoulder, the beam pointed up. It spotlights on the end of a stalactite, where a tiny bat yawns and stretches out one wing. It’s about three feet up from Jose’s head. Turn off the lights, it seems to say, don’t you know what time it is?
It’s time to be heading out, the tour is ending. We carefully make our way back through the caves, two people slipping but thankfully not falling. Sturdy shoes are a must for this adventure. Once we’re back to the gift shop area, there are books about the cave paintings, in Spanish and in English, and postcards with some decent photographs of what we couldn’t take pictures of. None of it is expensive, and the cave needs the money for upkeep. One of these days, Jose says, they want to do more exploration of the lower chambers. But that takes grant money and a lot of equipment.
It is a shame they haven’t excavated the rest, because there seem to be more skeletal deposits and perhaps other paintings in the caves below. Still, there’s time. The cave might eventually collapse in on itself as Jose told us, but something tells me it’s going to be around, at least for a little while longer.
Many thanks to the Bullón family for the tour and the photos.