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Isturitz, Oxocelhaya and Erberua Caves, where many prehistoric flutes were found

The Caves of Isturitz, Oxocelhaya and Erberua date back to the Mousterian, about 80 000 BP, and there is evidence of Neanderthals living there, but occupation extended to almost the end of the ice age in 10 000 BP. It is in the Atlantic Pyrennees region. The network consists of three caves, the upper Isturitz Cave, then 20 metres below, Oxocelhaya Cave with calcite concretions and finally the Erberua cave where the Arberoue river now runs. The main entrance to the cave Isturitz was known in medieval times. It is distinct from the current entry, created later. The first prehistoric objects were found at the end of the nineteenth century. Isturitz is famous for the discovery of a series of important prehistoric flutes dating from the Upper Paleolithic (Aurignacian to the Magdalenian), about 35 000 to 10 000 BC. The Périgordien period accounts for two thirds of the discoveries. There are also bone harpoons, figurines of bison on a sandstone plate (Magdalenian), and heads of propulseurs or spear throwers made of reindeer antler from the Middle Magdalenian. René de Saint-Perier excavated there in the early twentieth century. The caves also contain carvings and cave paintings, but only Isturitz remains accessible to the general public.

Text above translated and adapted from the French Wikipedia.

isturitz entrance

Ticket Office and entrance to the Cave of Isturitz.


Isturitz entrance Isturitz entrance
Entrance to the cave, and a closeup.

The door has been painted in trompe-l'oeil, representing visitors entering the cave when the doors are closed.

Photo (left): Krijun
Permission: Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Photo (right): From the owner of the cave, via Google Earth.

Isturitz entrance

The entrance was not much different in the 1970s, when this photograph was taken.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)

Isturitz entrance Isturitz entrance

Isturitz is on the limestone hill of Gaztelu isolated amongst farmland and houses.

(left) view from above, (right) view showing perspective.

Photo: Google Earth.

Isturitz plan

The hill of Gaztelu, the wooded hill in the mid foreground.

Photo: Normand (2005)

Erberua disappearing under Gaztelu Erberua reappearing from under Gaztelu
Two excellent photographs of the Erberua, from Alain Perre, via Panoramio, Google Earth.

M. Perre has many high quality photographs of similar entries and exits of streams, mostly in France, on Google Earth.

(left) This shows the disappearance of the stream of Erberua into the tunnel which passes under the limestone hill of Gaztelu, on which the cave of Isturitz is situated. The ancient Erberua was responsible, some millions of years ago, for the formation of the cave of Isturitz.

(right) Here we see the Erberua reappearing on the other side of Gaztelu Hill, through a grille.

Photo: Alain Perre, via Panoramio, Google Earth

Isturitz plan

Plan of the cave of Isturitz.

Photo: Redrawn by Don Hitchock, after Normand (2005)

plan of  Isturitz

Plan of Isturitz.

Photo: Diego Garate based on Laplace (1984)

Inside Isturitz

Inside Isturitz.


Isturitz bas relief deer Isturitz engraving on pillar

Bas relief of a group of animals including a large reindeer, on the Engraved Pillar of the Isturitz Hall .

Photo (left): Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)
Photo (right):

Isturitz bas relief deer

Drawing of the figures above.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)
Source: Laplace (1984)

Isturitz bas relief  cast deer

Cast of the pillar.

Photo: Passemard (1918)

Isturitz engraving on pillar

View of the Large Pillar from the platform from the other side of the stairway towards Oxocelhaya

Photo and text:

The figure of the large reindeer, which occupies almost the entire panel, is probably the most elaborate of the representations of the Large Pillar. It presents a large number of details; neckline, eye, ear, double line of the breast, cloven hooves, muscular insertions of the back legs and knees, and it is the only one that has two legs per pair in this set.

Nonetheless, certain parts were not completely finished: the lines of the hindquarters and the tail. One possible explanation is the hypothesis that we proposed above concerning the erroneous figuration of the line of the back.

With regard to the snout, it was not conserved because of removals from the wall, but it is possible that it was also originally represented.

Text above:

Isturitz engraving reindeer
Details of the figure of the large reindeer.

a) Macro view of the head. The impacts on the level of the snout, which probably destroyed it, are easily visible.
b) Differential relief of the front legs of the large reindeer.
c) Detail of the cloven hooves of the front legs.
d) Superposition of the line from the belly to the back leg of the first deer.

Photo and text:

One of the more specific characteristics of the Isturitz cave is the large quantity of objects inserted in the walls. In all, 280 deposits were inserted in four distinct halls: the Rhinolophes hall, the Large hall, the Saint Martin hall and the Phosphates hall. In each hall, three zones can be distinguished: a major zone with most of the deposits, a secondary zone where the deposits are still associated although more scattered, and a minor zone in which deposits are isolated and not very numerous or even alone.

There are four types of deposits: flint artefacts, all of which have been knapped, very small fragments of bone, rarely worked and sometimes fractured, colouring materials of different tones and rather rough particle size and, exceptionally, animal teeth.

The containers are of three types: fissures, which contain most of the deposits, then holes and lastly entablatures. The placement in the containers appears to be random and is, based on the current data, rather heterogeneous.

The deposits are often near colorations on the wall, or in the solid colour areas. However, none of these deposits has coloration, neither at the base nor at the summit, nor covering them. Sometimes the fissures have traces of colour washing, but the deposit remains free of coloration. Such an observation allows us to consider a deposit after the making of the solid colour area, when the coloration was already applied and dry.
Text above:

Isturitz insertions
Various types of inserted objects in the Isturitz cave: flint, bone, ochre and teeth.

Photo and text:

Isturitz flowstone

Flowstone in the cave.

Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)

Inside Isturitz

Stalactites and stalagmites inside the lower cave of Oxocelhaya.

Photo: Brochure from

horse with halter

Drawing of a horse, apparently wearing a halter.

Photo: Larribau (2011)

M. Larribau

Jean-Daniel Larribau, researching the art of the cave of Oxocelhaya.

Photo: Larribau (2011)

Isturitz dig

The excavation site at Salle de Saint-Martin

Photo: Normand (2005)

Isturitz signs

Vertical lines in the Sepulchral hall of the Salle de Saint-Martin.


Isturitz signs

Dots and marks in the Large Chamber of the Salle de Saint-Martin.


La grotte ornée d'Erberua (Pyrénées-Atlantiques). Note préliminaire

Larribau et Prudhomme (1983)

Translated and adapted by Don Hitchcock

Isturitz spear point

Diagram of the three caves, with Isturitz at the top, Oxocelhaya below that, and the Erberua Cave at the base of the hill, with the Erberua river passing through it. Access to the Erberua cave and its decorations is only by swimming through either of the siphons, using scuba gear.

Photo: Larribau et Prudhomme (1983)

Isturitz cross section

Gaztelu hill cross section.


The upper Isturitz cave was excavated by M. Passemard and M and Mme de Saint-Perier. This cave was frequented and inhabited continuously from the Mousterian to the final Magdalenian.

According to Abbé Breuil, it is the beginning of the Magdalenian IV when the bas-reliefs of Isturitz were made. M. Leroi-Gourhan puts them somewhere between the Middle and Late Magdalenian (Style III). They represent 2 reindeer, 2 deer (or two goats according to the authors), a horse (or 2), a bear and a mammoth (according to M. Leroi-Gourhan).

In the middle is the Oxocelhaya cave. In 1955 and 1956, the work of Abbé Barandiaran and MM Boucher and Laplace mentioned a few 'rare Mousterian pieces' and some more recent tools of the Neolithic, in the first room of this cavity. In addition, M. Laplace was to discover, in 1955, a decorated gallery comprising:

- 'Three head and shoulders of horses and a bird's head, obtained by scraping the rock.

- an horse, a head of a horse, and a bison painted with black lines.

- The back of a horse and a female deer, deeply engraved.'

The cave of Erberua corresponds to a lower active level where the creek called Arberoue flows. This stream caused the formation of the three cavities, and disappears at the foot of the limestone hill 'Gastelu' and reappears after flowing underground for more than 300 metres. The two siphons at each end of this course impede access and protect the cave.

Of the first 150 metres following the downstream siphon, the cross section of the cavity is similar to the contours of a "keyhole" 15 to 20 metres high. Indeed, in the upper part, the gallery is large, while it narrows at the bottom where the river flows underground.

Halfway through, a tributary whose flow was estimated at 0.13 m3 / s in low water comes in from a large secondary gallery (10 mx 15 m) which enters on the left bank of the main cave. This annex is part of ongoing exploration. Then the cavity becomes more circular, as it progresses towards the upstream trap.

Plan of Erberua Cave

Map of the decorated section of Erberua Cave.

In the terminal area of 50 m before the siphon, many galleries open into the upper parts of the cavity including one where wall drawings and objects on the floor were discovered recently.

Photo: Larribau et Prudhomme (1983)

Les Occupations aurignaciennes de la grotte d'Isturitz (Saint-Martin-d'Arberou; Pyrénées-Atlantiques; France)

Normand (2005)

Translated and adapted by Don Hitchcock

Isturitz is located in the foothills of the Western Pyrenees, about thirty kilometres from the present shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean, and a short distance from the Pyrenees, the first peaks of over 1000 metres are only 25 km away.

The hill has an altitude of 209 m, and consists of a rocky limestone outcop 500 m long, by 300 m wide.

The Arberua River had dug three channels through the hill, the highest being Isturitz, then Oxycetalhya , then the tunnel through which the present Erberua still flows.

Isturitz is oriented generally north west to south east, and has a length of 120 metres, sometimes reaching a width of 50 metres, open at its two ends, although a succession of collapses gradually blocked the southern entry, and severely restricted the the one opposite.

It is commonly divided into two principal chambers, the Salle d'Isturitz (or the Grand Salle or the Salle Nord) and the Salle de Saint-Martin (or the Salle Sud).

The Salle d'Isturitz has a total area of more than 1700 m2 with a ceiling height sometimes as much as 15 metres. The Salle de Saint-Martin is significantly different: besides a smaller area, all altogether close to 1000 m2, it differs from its neighbour by a ceiling whose present height rarely exceeds 2 metres.

In the Hall of lsturitz, above the layers which only contain fauna has been encountered a sequence covering almost the entire Upper Paleolithic to the top of the Azilian and then Bronze Age graves on a large flowstone near the northern entry.

In the Hall of St. Martin, human use of the area starts with the Mousterian, more or less associated with the remains of cave bears, then continues with a rich ensemble of Aurignacian and Magdalenian deposits. Only a few pieces testify to Solutrean and Gravettian layers. As in the previous room Ia, human remains from the Bronze Age seal the archaeological sequence.

The material currently collected and preserved at the Museum of National Antiquities in Saint-Germain-en-Laye certainly includes tens of thousands of objects, often of very high quality (flutes, baguettes demi-rondes with curvilinear designs, sculpture in the round ...), but it results from sorting, sometimes quite severe.

Indeed, some categories are very much under-represented, including fauna - the prevailing method was only to determine the main species and reject anything not considered useful - and the stone industry, which is virtually lacking all items of less than 3 cm, all waste and debitage, not counting very many tools abandoned in the debris. However, bone tools and pieces of art were much less affected. It must be admitted that several old collections have overall bias (stratigraphic misallocation understandable in this context, representativeness sometimes questionable ...) and it is imperative to approach with caution, taking into account their relative value whenever possible.

Isturitz spear point
Three views of the same tip of a spear with a forked base found at Isturitz, Muséum de Toulouse.

Bone is preferable as a tip for many hunting purposes, as it is more shock resistant than flint, unless the sharpness of flint is specifically required in order to penetrate the tough hide of a mammoth or a wooly rhinoceros.

This type of point was split to facilitate binding it to the end of a spear, specially modified to accept the split, the whole then being bound with sinew or cord, and a coating of glue or pitch applied to the bindings.

Photo: August 17, 2010 (2010-08-17)
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Personal work, Didier Descouens
Authorization: As the holder of copyright, I publish it under the following license: This file is available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0 Unported identical

Isturitz map

Map showing the relationship of Isturitz to the ocean shore, about 50 km distant, when the sea was 100 metres lower during the last ice age.

Whales regularly beach on the Bay of Biscay shores, as shown in the photo below, and would have provided bone for tools and spear points, as well as large quantities of meat for those who regularly patrolled the beaches. Whalebone tools may have had special significance or magic to the users, having come from such large animals.

Photo: Pétillon (2008)

beached whale

This ten metre long whale beached itself on the shore near the fortress of San Martin, on the Cantabrian coast of northern Spain, in November 2011.

Photo: Antuan Ayllón

Whalebone tools

Cross-section views of an antler point fragment from Isturitz (a), a worked land-mammal rib fragment from Lespugue (b), and 6 whale-bone artifacts from Isturitz (c-h). On h, the dark triangular shape is sediment staining.

Photo: Pétillon (2008)

Whalebone tools

Detail of the surface of 4 whale-bone artifacts, showing the orientation of the trabeculae. The trabeculae can be seen on all sides of the objects, and across their entire length.

a: proximal fragment of projectile point with simple, blunt base (layer II/E);
b: foreshaft proximal fragment (layer II/E);
c: wedge (layer I/F1);
d: fragment of unidentified object (layer SI/Eω).

(Note that a trabecula, plural trabeculae, from Latin for 'small beam' is a small, often microscopic, tissue element in the form of a small beam, strut or rod, generally having a mechanical function, and usually composed of dense collagenous tissue - Don, from Wikipedia)

Photo: Pétillon (2008)

Whalebone tools

Whale-bone artifact types from the Isturitz Magdalenian.

a: projectile point mesial fragment (layer SI/Eω);
b: proximal fragment of projectile point with simple, blunt base (layer SI/Eω);
c: foreshaft (layer I/F1);
d: foreshaft distal fragment (layer I/F1);
e: half-round rod fragment (layer II/E);
f: wedge (layer I/F1);
g: mesial fragment of projectile point recycled as pendant (layer II/E).

Photo: Pétillon (2008)

Isturitz Bison

Pierced baton, a spear straightener, carved with the image of a bison, from Isturitz. The hole has broken off, as often happens, but the curve of the bottom of the hole can still be seen at the top of the baton.

Photo: Kathy King 2010

Source: Facsimile, display at Musée d'archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Isturitz Bison

Heads of bisons on spear straighteners, sculpted in reindeer antler, nearly identical, from the Grotte d'Enlène in Ariège and from the Grotte d'Isturitz in Pays Basque

Almost certainly from the same artist, this demonstrates, just like the multiple copies of propulseurs (spear throwers, atlatls) with a fawn and birds, that trade was normal in this society.

Photo: cl. © Service d'Exploitation des Sites Touristiques de l'Ariège et © Musée d'archéologie nationale


Isturitz horse

Head of a horse carved in sandstone from Isturitz.

Photo: Kathy King 2010

Source: Original, display at Musée d'archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Isturitz horse

Muzzle of a horse carved in sandstone from Isturitz.

Photo: Kathy King 2010

Source: Original, display at Musée d'archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Isturitz Bear Pendant

Pendant in the form of a bear, sculpted in sandstone and pierced through the centre of the body, from Isturitz.

Views of the front and the back.

Photo: © Musée d'archéologie nationale


Isturitz Bear Pendant

Statuette of a resting bison, sculpted in sandstone, from Isturitz.

Photo: © Musée d'archéologie nationale


Isturitz bison and women

Figure of two bisons following each other on the flat side of a piece of bone, and with two women (?) following each other on the other side. This is a very famous piece from Isturitz.

Photo: Kathy King 2010

Source: Facsimile, display at Musée d'archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

carved  bone

This image of two creatures, possibly women, shows them wearing neckbands, bracelets and anklets. These creatures may be human, or figures from mythology, or even two images of an animal god of some kind. They may also represent a shaman dressed in shape-shifting clothes and mask.

The creatures are marked with barbs and other symbols, but it is not certain what they represent.

Source: "Exploring the Ice Age" by Margaret Cooper, copyright 2001, isbn 0-689-82556-0

The book says that it comes from a French Pyrenees rock shelter, but no other information is given. It comes from Isturitz, and is of Magdalenian age.

My thanks to Marion for bringing this excellent book to my attention.

carved  bone

Another photo of the object above, apparently of the original.


The web page says it comes from Isturitz, it is ten centimetres long, and that on the other side is the image of a bison and the rump of another. The barbed signs are apparently not uncommon in the art of Isturitz, and it assumes that the two figures are of women.

carved  bone


This is a drawing of the two sides of the bone. It shows clearly the barbs on both sets of images.

According to this site, JA Mauduit describes the object in 40 000 ans d'Art Moderne:
"A man lying naked, adorned with bracelets, reaches for a woman lying before him. The woman is strong and hairy, and on her thigh, an arrow with a triple row of barbs, the symbol of his conquest. The engraving on the other side is not unrelated to the previous one: it is a bison male ready to mate with a female of which there are the hindquarters and tail erect, the male also has on the shoulder of barbed arrows.

Source: Figure taken from the book of Heuvelmans et Porchnev, p. 430.

carved  bone

And yet another image, this one showing the reverse side, with the two bison. Note that the breast of the woman in front is lying flat on her chest, as though she is standing up.

The bison and the women seem to be following one another around the bone, and the object may show the women entering the world of bison, even becoming a bison, then returning to the female human body again. The arrows on the two sets of figures link the two images with the same signs. The women may be crawling through a birthing tunnel, and kept within the confines of the bone they are depicted on, to the world of bison.

This seems to me to be an important piece, not just art for the sake of art, which evoked powerful magic in the world of the carver.

Photo: Bahn et al (1997)

cave lion

A cave lion carved in reindeer antler, from Isturitz, Basses Pyrenees. The holes and the arrows carved in the sculpture have been interpreted as magical symbols.

Photo: T. Powell 'Prehistoric Art'

isturitz cave lion

Note the "arrow" symbols carved on this beautifully polished piece.


isturitz big cat
In 1896, Hour-Castagné and Lacaux-Barraqué found a 6-inch stone figure of a big cat at Isturitz, 250 cm below ground level. Described in 1910, it appeared to be a representation of a cave lion, but the statuette was lost and its identification was forgotten. Upon seeing reproductions of the original figure, though, in 1970 the Czech paleontologist Vratislav Mazak proposed that the cat wasn’t a cave lion at all. Instead its short tail, deep face, and other features identified it as Homotherium latidens, a wide-ranging species of scimitar-toothed cat which was thought to have lived right up until the last global glaciation.

Mazak’s interpretation was interesting, but didn’t last long. Better resolution of recent geologic time showed that Homotherium went extinct before the figure was made and therefore could not have been its inspiration. By default, the figure must have been of a cave lion.

Photo: Antón et al. (2009)


isturitz big cat
A gap in time had resolved the identity of the Isturitz statue, but in 2003 a team of paleontologists led by Jelle Reumer returned to Mazak's hypothesis on the basis of new fossil material dredged up from the North Sea. In 2000 a fishing boat had trawled up the lower jaw of Homotherium, and when this jaw was subjected to radiocarbon analysis it yielded a date of about 28,000 years before present. This was the geologically youngest evidence of Homotherium latidens ever found, demonstrating that at least some of these rare predators survived until the Late Pleistocene.

Since the jaw was about the same age as the figure, Reumer and colleagues considered the new find as a confirmation of what had previously been proposed on the basis of the statuette. After several decades, the artistic record and the fossil record came into accord.

Photo: Antón et al. (2009)


isturitz big cat

Homotherium serum, a related Scimitar Tooth cat from North America, which preyed on juvenile Columbian Mammoths (Mammuthus columbii).

Friesenhahn cave in Texas contained the remains of over 30 Homotherium serum individuals, which were discovered along with the remains of between 300 and 400 juvenile Columbian Mammoths.

Photo: Sergiodlarosa

Permission:This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Isturitz fawn spear thrower

Part of a propulseur or spear thrower, carved in the image of a young ibex or chamois, from Isturitz. There were many pieces in exactly this style fashioned at one period. Complete examples, as shown below, have the fawn looking over its shoulder at a turd coming out of its rear end, with two parrots on the turd, with their beaks forming the hook of the spear thrower.

Photo: Kathy King 2010

Source: Facsimile, display at Musée d'archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Grotte du Mas d'Azil

Spearthrower made of antler showing a young ibex (or possibly a chamois) with an emerging turd on which two birds are perched, found around 1940 in the cave of Le Mas d'Azil, Ariege. This was one of the first examples of mass produced art. Fragments of up to ten examples of this design have been found, which means that scores or hundreds must have been manufactured originally. The joke must have been very popular amongst the people of the time!

The ibex figure alone is about 7 cm long, and dates to about 16 000 BP. The entire propulseur is 29.5 cm in length. The engraved line along the body of the animal possibly represents a change in the colour of the coat.

Although most authorities give the interpretation of a turd with birds above, Bandi (1988) proposes that the 'sausage' coming out of the back of the ibex/chamois is the sac of an infant, and the animal is giving birth. The reasons given are that animals never look back to see their own excrement, but usually do so when giving birth. In addition, the author says that the object is too thick to be excrement, it is much more likely to be the sac of an infant.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008

Source: Facsimile on display at Le Musée National de Préhistoire, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac

Grotte du Mas d'Azil

These drawings are useful to demonstrate the ubiquity and spread of the propulseur design above, at other places such as Bedeilhac and St Michel d'Arudy.

Source: Palaeolithic Spear-Throwers. Garrod, D. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 21, 1955.

Isturitz Isturitz

(left) Harpoons from Isturitz, (right) sculpture of a bison, Isturitz.

Photo: Brochure from

abri pataud

Close up of the example on display at Abri Pataud of a Sagaie d'Isturitz, or an Isturitz spear.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008

Source: Display at Abri Pataud Museum. This appeared to be an original.

Isturitz spears

These points are known as "Sagaies d’Isturitz" or Isturitz spears. To me they look much too heavy to be points for spears, and I suspect that they are actually retouchers for taking fine flakes from flint points.

a, b and c are from Isturitz, while d is from Gargas.

Figure 8. "Sagaies d’Isturitz" provenant de Gargas et d’Isturitz.
a, b et c: exemplaires entiers d’Isturitz (d’après SAINT-PÉRIERR. & S. 1952). -
d: probable extrémité distale n°261, assemblée “virtuellement” à la base n°1146 (e) (Gargas, coll.BREUIL-CARTAILHAC-IPH).

Original Source for the sketch: Saint-Périer (1952), reprinted in: Foucher (2005)

compresseur sagaie
(note: These objects, "Sagaies d’Isturitz", superficially similar to spear points, seem to me to be anything but spears. They are much too big and heavy to have fitted on a dart. They could only have been used on a thrusting spear, one which was not thrown but used in close up work with an animal which had been wounded.

I have no evidence for this personal opinion, but they are much more likely so far as I can see to be retouchers, or compresseurs. This interpretation is borne out by the examples which do not have even a symbolic point, such as the ribs from Gargas shown immediately below, from apparently a similar tradition, and which
Breuil & Cheynier (1958) identified as retouchers.

In addition, we may note the similarity between the Périgordien V / Noaillien Sagaie d’Isturitz shown here and the Compresseur in the previous display case for the Périgordien IV / Gravettien. They are similar in shape and volume, and both are made of bone or ivory.

I have juxtaposed two images copied from the one photograph at Abri Pataud of a Compresseur and the Sagaie d’Isturitz to show how similar they are. The compresseur has obviously been thrown away after the point was broken off - Don)

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008

Source: Display at Abri Pataud Museum. These appeared to be originals.

Gargas decorated bone objects

The caption reads:

Fig. 2. Gargas, industrie osseuse gravettienne: côte gravée n°236-IPH, collection BREUIL-CARTAILHAC (dessin C. SANJUAN-FOUCHER).

Gargas bone industry, a decorated rib.

It was described by Breuil & Cheynier (1958) as "a large curved piece, rounded at the end, which had been used as a retoucher. It is the left rear rib of either Aurochs or Bison"

Photo: San Juan-Foucher (2005)

Isturitz horse Isturitz horse

Horse head sculptures from Isturitz, probably originally carved from a horse hyoid bone.

(left) Length 7 cm. (right) Length 4.5 cm.

The sculpture on the left seems to have originally had four holes bored in it, making it possible that it was some sort of button or toggle.

Photo: Kathy King 2010

Source: Facsimiles, display at Musée d'archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

horse hyoid

Horse hyoid bone, the long bone labelled "A" in the diagram.


horse Isturitz

This horse's head comes from the Grotte d'Enlène, near Trois Frères. It would seem that the fashion for this sort of artefact was widespread across the Pyrenees. It is very similar to the ones from Isturitz.

Photo: Tête de cheval découpée et gravée sur os d'Enlène (cl. C. Fritz/ © Service d'Exploitation des Sites Touristiques de l'Ariège)


Isturitz spirals lourdes and arudy  spirals

(left) Spirals on baguettes demi-ronde found at Isturitz.

(right) For comparison, spirally decorated baguettes demi-ronde at Arudy in the Basses Pyrénées and at Lourdes, in the Hautes Pyrénées.

Note the cross sections.

Photo: Passemard (1920)

Isturitz tools

Various tools and carvings of bone, antler and flint from the Magdalenian deposits of Isturitz.

Note especially the deeply carved baguette demi-ronde, iconic of the carvings of Isturitz.

Photo: Kathy King 2010

Source: Possibly originals, display at Musée d'archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Isturitz tools

Various tools of bone from Isturitz, a close up of the photo above.

Note in particular the bone needle and the spear tip with forked base, designed to be slotted onto a specially prepared wooden shaft, and bound in place with sinew or cord, and kept in place with glue or pitch.

If sinew is wetted, it becomes soft and pliable, and when it is bound around a point and spear tip, it shrinks and holds tight as it dries, so it may be that glue is not needed when this method is used.

Photo: Kathy King 2010

Source: Possibly originals, display at Musée d'archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Isturitz bullroarer

(See the image below this one for an example of a bullroarer from Lalinde, Dordogne)

Bullroarers were used as noise makers during the Paleolithic, and are swung around the head from a string, and the shape induces it to rotate in a plane vertically to the plane of rotation around the head, which produces the characteristic sound.

Photo: Kathy King 2010

Source: Display at Musée d'archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

noisemakers - whistle and flute and bullroarer

Music and dance are ephemeral art forms. However the existence of music in the Paleolithic is attested by the discovery of several types of instruments: flutes, whistles, bull-roarers and scrapers.

Drums probably existed in the Paleolithic, but these instruments made of wood and skin are rarely if ever preserved. However, in some caves, calcite sheets or curtains showing traces of percussion testify to the rhythmical talents of prehistoric musicians.

60: Bone flute, facsimile, from Isturitz, Atlantic Pyrenees. Aurignacian, between 40 000 and 26 000 years ago

61: Whistle in bone, original, from Laugerie-Basse, Dordogne.

62: Bullroarer or rhombus or turndun, facsimile, in reindeer antler, Lalinde, Dordogne. Note the colour, originally from ochre, and the regular straight lines and rectangles decorating it.

63: Scraper, or scraped idiophone, original, from Mas d'Azil, Ariège. This one seems to have been made from a salvaged broken spear straightener.

Scraped idiophones (an idiophone is defined as a musical instrument from which the sound comes from the natural sonorous quality of the instrument itself, not from a stretched string or hide or enclosed column of air) are rasps or notched sticks over which another stick is scraped, resulting in a series of beats.

Photo: Kathy King 2010

Source: Image and translated and adapted text from the display at Musée d'archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Isturitz flute

This is a photo of the original flute from the Aurignacian culture of Isturitz, which would place it between 40 000 and 26 000 years ago, shown in facsimile above.

Victor Mair (Mair, 2006) describes a collection of prehistoric flutes made of vulture wing bones:

... a very impressive collection of Upper Paleolithic flutes (or pipes) from Isturitz in southwestern France. Consisting of more than twenty separate specimens, the Isturitz flutes range widely in date from the Aurignacian to the Magdalenian (between ca. 20 000 and 35 000 years ago).

Two of the most complete pipes are from the Gravettian levels of the cave, ca. 25 000 years ago. They are extremely well made of vulture ulnae, bear finely etched identifying or notational marks, and display evidence of having been extensively used.

The flute above is artifact 77142(a) [DB 4.1] from Buisson (1990). The close-up image of the finger hole on the right shows a set of marks.

Isturitz flute

Flute from Isturitz

The brochure from the official cave site, at, says that it is 31 000 years old.

Note that this image has been flipped horizontally to agree with the facsimile and photos above.

Photo: From the Owner, via Google Earth

Some observations from D'Errico et al (2003):

From the outset we were struck by the pipe’s sophistication. Although archaeologists have sometimes been tempted to classify these things as "simple," even "primitive" instruments, close inspection revealed some intriguing musical choices and functional asymmetries. Bearing in mind how very ancient they are, with a date-range currently estimated, for most of them, at between ca. 20 000 and 35 000 years, these seemed remarkably advanced, and clearly justified careful reevaluation.
Photo and text above:

Isturitz flutes

(a, b, e, f) Photo and tracing of the two most complete pipes from the Gravettian levels of Isturitz Cave.

Grey areas around the finger holes and at the rear of the pipe indicate concentrations of polish interpreted as use wear;

(c) sketch identifying sets of marks made by different tools;

(d) close-up view of sets 1–3.

Text above: D'Errico et al (2003)

These two Isturitz bone flutes are attributed to the Gravettian culture, which would place them between 28 000 and 22 000 years ago.

The flute above is artifact 83888(a)/75252-A3 [DB 2] from Buisson (1990) and the flute below is artifact 86757(a) [DB 5.1] from the same reference.

The gray shading around the finger holes shown on the drawings at the right indicate concentrations of polish that are interpreted as wear from playing.

Photo : D'Errico et al (2003)


complete flute

Complete flute, a compilation of two photographs from the first flute in the photo above this one.

There are two dates and other information marked on this flute: 1st . III . 1939 and I . F3 ch 1914

The flute above is artifact 83888(a)/75252-A3 [DB 2] from Buisson (1990)

Photo: Two original photographs from D'Errico (2003),

Dordogne Flutes

The Dordogne Bone Flutes

The P&EE Christy Collection of the British Museum has two bone flutes of uncertain age, but are "about 32 000 years old". They are from rock shelters at La Roque and Les Roches, Dordogne, France.

the Les Roches flute has two holes (left), and the La Roque flute (right) has "five holes on the front and two on the back". Both flutes are 124mm (4.88 inches) long.

Photo and text:

Isturitz baton

The Isturitz Baton

Engraved baton made of antler, from Isturitz, France, 25 000 to 20 000 BC. The markings represent a five-month and a four-month lunar calendar.


Engraved horse Painted horse

Horse apparently engraved with a finger on the clay which often covers the walls and ceilings of caves, and a painted horse.


Dating of Isturitz artefacts

Only cutmarked bones were selected, and a total of 31 targets were made, giving a weighted average of 37,180±420 BP for this assemblage and providing a terminus ante quem (latest possible date) for the ornaments, decorated artefact and amber pendants beneath it. Szmidt et al. (2010)

human molar

Grotte d’Isturitz, level 4a (Early Aurignacian, or Aurignacien Typique). Human Lower left M2 or M3 perforated by back-and-forth rotation. The hole, created by a rather obtuse tool point, is heavily 'worn'. Photo and text: White (2007)

Calcite pendant

Calcite pendant from the Archaic Aurignacian level 4d1 at Isturitz. Level 4d is associated with two dates: 34,630±560 BP and 36,550±610 BP

Photo and text: White (2007)

Amber pendant

Amber pendant from the Archaic Aurignacian level 4c6 at Isturitz.

Level 4c, immediately overlying 4d and with many of the same archaic characteristics of the level 4d assemblage, remains undated for the moment. Its base has yielded the oldest known evidence evidence for amber jewellery in the world in the form of amber pendants (as shown here), production debris and raw chunks of amber. The amber pendant was almost certainly made from amber obtained from Cretaceous sources in the Pyrenean forelands (Beck et al. 1987)

Photo and text: White (2007)

Amber pendant

Ratios of basket-shaped beads to production débris and unfinished beads from modern excavations at the Grotte des Hyènes, Brassempouy, Abri Castanet and the Grotte d’Isturitz.

Abri Castanet was a place of intense bead production, but in the small area recently excavated at Isturitz, evidence for ornament production is virtually absent, with one exception: strong traces of the working of amber ornaments on site, a phenomenon restricted in time to levels 4b and 4c.

Photo and text: White (2007)

mammoth scapula

Young mammoth scapula recovered from Sondage 7 in the Salle d'Isturitz.

(Presumably the young mammoth was hunted and butchered in the field, and only the choicest cuts were taken back to the cave. Mammoth meat is rich, and the fat, hide, bones and ivory are all very useful - Don)

Photo: Normand (2005)

Fouilles à Isturitz (Basses-Pyrénées)

Passemard (1913)

Digs at Isturitz

Translated and adapted by Don Hitchock

Isturitz coupe

Coupe or cross section of the dig at Isturitz.

During excavations July-September 1913 in Isturitz cave, Passemard (1913) met five successive very distinct archeological layers: F1, E, F2, G, F3.

Successively, starting with the surface, the layers yielded:

F1 - Round harpoons, with hooks on both sides (doubles) or on just one side (singles) , forked spearheads of reindeer antler (specific to this layer), double bevel points; spear straighteners and some beautiful needles, as well as various tools, punches, spatulas, etc. No works of art.

The lithic industry is represented by beautiful blades, many burins, scrapers, an abundant microlithic industry, some of which had blunted backs.

Fauna - reindeer, very abundant, horses abundant, Deer and Bovidae fairly abundant, and others.

E - In the top part, engravings in stone and on bone. Double bevelled points in reindeer antler continued in this bed, up to two thirds down.

This upper part also yielded some beautifully engraved baguettes demi-rondes, some spear straighteners, some needles and some punches. The middle part of the E layer gave some bas-reliefs on reindeer antler and on stone, and the lower part some beautiful engravings on stone and on reindeer antler. Worked ivory was rare, but was however represented.

The typical features of this lower layer are the "bec de flûte", or dihedral burin, which replaces the other types; Solutrean laurel-leaf and willow leaf points, of elongated shape.

The stone industry provided scrapers, chisels, blades retouched on both edges, some specimens of small blades with a blunted back, scrapers, grattoirs-rabots (Rabots are heavy 'push-plane' scrapers made on blocks or thick flakes and abruptly retouched - Don) rare.

It should be noted, not as described so far, a bird bone, with pierced holes, having served as a musical instrument, and several fragments of amber.

Fauna - For the upper two parts, the same elements as in F, and for the lower part: horses very abundant, large Bovids abundant, reindeer less abundant than F, and a large joint of Rhinoceros ticorhinus was found in the middle part of E.

F2 - dihedral spearheads mainly of bones, no artistic pieces, but another bone of a large bird, pierced by a hole adapted for closing with the finger, thus a musical instrument; punches abundant and fine; marques de chasse, a series of tiny parallel lines on a bone artifact which might be interpreted as hunting tallies,

The lithic industry is not so beautiful; burins are more rare; there is the appearance of retouched flakes, to make scrapers. The fauna is dominated by bovids.

C furnishes some rare specimens of round or flat points in reindeer antler.

The true burin becomes very rare; it is replaced by a sort of demi-burin, reworked on one side and itself quite rare.

There are many scrapers, even of the double ended type, blades are thicker and less beautiful, large retouched flakes become common. Several beautiful big backed blades, points or other forms.

Fauna - Bovidae very numerous and very large; horses abundant; Reindeer few, but large, and other animals.

F3 - The stone industry becomes quite ugly and sparse; burins seem to disappear completely, even in the form of the demi-burin; scrapers persist, relatively abundant, but ugly and thick.

Some beautiful scrapers, pod shaped, finally appear and are finely retouched; a few specimens of backed blades.

The "sagaies" type of spearheads are replaced by large points in reindeer antler, a kind of spearhead pointed at both ends, some fragments of ivory. There is a complete absence of other forms.

In all layers, we found abundant fragments red, yellow or green oxides, with many small plates of sandstone and some retouchers. A rock crystal and many geodes, carrying in the hollow some remains of fat and having probably served as lamps, were found.

Also discovered were several bas-reliefs or very primitive sculptures on the walls, representing reindeer, horses, female deer, mammoths, etc.

Une gravure de lièvre d'Isturitz

Passemard (1920b)

Engraving of a hare at Isturitz

Translated and adapted by Don Hitchock

Isturitz hare
Although many Paleolithic paintings and engravings are difficult to interpret as one animal or another, with this one doubt is impossible, it is obviously a hare.

The engraving shows erect ears, nose to the wind, his eyes restless, ready to flee, this is a worthy companion to the slow tortoise immortalised in the fables.

The details confirm the general appearance. As always in the drawings of that time, the coat is expressed by means of light broken hatching.

They are aligned in the direction of the hair and it lightens the form and accentuates the rigid and solid line of the other parts.

It is a safe bet that the author of this little etching was also a skillful hunter of hare and he had long observed that animal in all his attitudes.

He has, indeed, perfectly understood the special character of the fur and has shown it as it really is, looking light and drawn against the grain of the neck and chest. The whiskers are also superbly indicated. Mention should also be made of the front legs which are simple but correct.

However this work is not of great style and does not attain the level of certain quaternary engravings, it looks a little sparse.

But still, it was engraved with a light touch on the burin, on a plaquette of yellowish sandstone, soft and fine grained, of which there is an abundance in the surrounding hills.

It comes from the southern gallery, rich in stone engravings, although the northern gallery produced most works engraved or carved in wood and reindeer bones.

It seems, therefore, in summary, to be the common hare of the plains. It has none of the characters of the mountain or blue Hare (Lepus variabilis), which seems exceedingly rare in deposits in this region.

Le Comte de Saint-Perier

Comte de Perier portrait

Le Comte de Saint-Perier


René de Saint-Perier Poilloüe was born August 18, 1877 at Biou (Loir-et-Cher), and died September 12, 1950 in his château de Morigny (Essonne). Originally a medical doctor, he turned to archeology and prehistory and began his career with digs at the Gallo-Roman site of Souzy la Briche.

He undertook pre-war excavations at Lespugue, and in 1922 discovered the famous Lespugue Venus.

Text: translated and adapted from

Quelques oeuvres d'art de la grotte d'Isturitz

Some works of art from the cave of Isturitz

De Saint-Périer (1935)

Translated and adapted by Don Hitchcock

The cave of Isturitz is located in the Basses-Pyrénées, with the nearest town Saint Martin d’Arberoue, near the top of a limestone hill, with the entrance to the cave facing south east. A tributary of the Adour, the Arberoue, passes under the hill, and re-emerges on the western flank of the hill. This small stream initially created the cave, then went under it and created another cave (Oxocelhaya) only discovered in 1929, 12 metres below, before finally establishing a third tunnel (Erberua), through which it now flows, 50 metres below.

The cave has two entrances today, the one in the commune of Isturitz is atop a steep slope of thirty metres, which plunges into the interior of the cave, forming a vestibule like a sinkhole, to a vast hall, 110 metres in length and whose ceiling is more than 15 metres above the floor.

Towards the middle of this room there opens on the left a narrow passage that leads to a second room, with a length roughly equal to the first, but the ceiling has fallen, but with several lateral galleries. At its end is another entrance, which was created artificially in 1912, but which existed in the Aurignacian, as is evidenced by the layers of the cave, but was closed by landslides, probably at the beginning of the Magdalenian period. The boundary between the two communes of Isturitz and Saint-Martin d'Arberoue passes through the first large room, named for this reason the Salle Isturitz, while the other is called Saint Martin.

The cave may have been the object of a cult in the Gallo-Roman period, because some large bronze objects have been recovered from the superficial levels, from the Haut-Empire, which seem to have been thrown in from the outside in the manner of an offering.

By 1890, less unselfish visitors came. Two residents of the area proposed, in effect, to exploit as fertiliser the clays and limestone which made up the cave.

The hill belonged to two landowners whose property boundaries coincided with the boundaries of the two municipalities of Isturitz and Saint-Martin. A system of winches was established at the entry to Isturitz to allow ore wagons ("bogies") to be pulled up the slope outside the cave, and mining began.

However ill-informed the merchants of fertiliser were in prehistoric matters, the unforeseen discoveries of the workers caused them some surprise.

They talked together, and we do not know by what route, but Edouard Piette was informed.

He did not come to Isturitz himself, but he understood the importance of the finds, and sent a letter to Gabriel de Mortillet.

However, the mining continued and the owner of the part of the cave located on Saint-Martin began to worry. He noticed that operators exceeded the limit of their lease and encroached on his land. He took them to court. There was a trial, an appeal, and finally a judgement to stop the extraction, but after two years the cave had been ransacked, without benefit for science.

In 1912, the exit to Saint-Martin was created, to allow access to the cave from that side of the hill. It was shortly afterwards that M. Emmanuel Passemard learned of the cave and there began his excavations. He has published the results in several books and papers. The collection he gathered is now housed at the Musée de Saint-Germain in Paris.

In 1928, we (De Saint-Périer and his wife) started our Isturitz research. We started first with the excavation of the Salle de Saint-Martin, only part of which had been explored by M. Passemard, but one gallery had been completely emptied by farmers for fertiliser.

We must confine ourselves here to describing some objects of art amongst those we found in this room and we refer to the statement quoted above for the study of stratigraphy, paleontology, plant and all works of art. We shall say only that the upper level, the only one explored by us so far, was covered with a layer of stalagmite 35 cm thick in places, and belongs to the Magdalenian without harpoons, was well defined, and rested without interposition of any sterile level on a bed of grey loam corresponding by its archeological characters to the upper Aurignacien.

Engravings are numerous in this level, sometimes on bone, sometimes on plates of schist, sometimes on sandstone. These rocks, abundant in the layer, appear to have been collected by the Magddaléniens on the side of the Arberoue valley opposite the cave. At this point, in fact, a Cretaceous formation contains schist outcrops, which cleaves easily into thin plates, and some ferruginous sandstones are found here and there among the scree slopes.

Fish Isturitz

Fish engraved on bone, Isturitz. (this looks to me like a salmon - Don)

Among the engravings on bone, we show here a drawing using light strokes on a fragment of diaphysis (middle section - Don) of a large bone, which is a fish whose head and tail are incomplete because they have broken off.

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

The gills are shown well, as is the eye, the mouth a wide slit, the ventral and pectoral fins are shown. The sideline is marked with a strong line. Although this is just a quick sketch, realism is sufficient for us to recognize it without hesitation as a salmonid trout or salmon.

(The sideline senses currents and movement in water. It may therefore be used to sense the presence of nearby fish, as in shoals of fish, and also may be used for swimming in water where visibility is poor and to help catch prey in these conditions. Salmon and trout belong to the same family - Don)

horse Isturitz
The upper etching on bone, formed of small incisions, is a bearded horse head with nostrils, eye, an ear flattened on the head, a mouth, and an indication of the jaw. Behind the head, only a few small marks represent the body, either because the place for showing it was missing from the bone, or because the artist wanted to show only the pelt of a skinned animal.

This graphic technique of small separated strokes is ordinarily used to reproduce tufts of hair or the markings on fur. Here, it was even used to represent the outline of the head.

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

On a blade of bone of very similar dimensions, shown below the horse, we have a beautiful bison head, massive and powerful. The body is only lightly sketched in after a strong mane, but it carries a barbed line, which may be a more or less schematic image of a spear, although no weapon of this kind has been found in the strata of this age.

It looks like the barbed head of a harpoon, but we know that double harpoon barbs appear only much later in the Magdalenian. We have collected in this layer a prototype harpoon with barbs barely indicated, but that looks nothing like the barbed image on the bison. Thus we need to see this as either a weapon not represented in our excavations, or a symbolic representation of some kind.

When the blade of bone is turned over, one can see the incomplete head of a bovid, without mane, with horns pointing forwards. These characters suggest that this is a Bos primigenius, or Aurochs, more slender than the bison, and the ancestor of modern cattle. These are not frequent in Paleolithic representations, but this cave gave many other examples of the Aurochs.

marmot Isturitz

This is a species much more rarely drawn, and they represent the only known Palaeolithic representation to date, of this animal. There are two small heads, etched on a polished bone blade, the profile is convex, with round ears, wide eyes, face covered with thick fur indicated by small lines almost touching. It is not a ruminant, but a rodent or felid.

We believe that the artist wanted to show a marmot, the only animal whose convexity of profile and rounded ears, standing out against the fur of the face could be the subject of this engraving.

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

marmot Wiki

Alpine Marmot in the southern French Alps.

Photo: Taken By DevAnubis, July 2006 in the Massif des Écrins national park in the southern French Alps.

Original uploader was DevAnubis at en.wikipedia

Permission: Released under the GNU Free Documentation License. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

bison hoof Isturitz

We know that a very large number of Paleolithic engravings come to us only in fragments, a result perhaps in many cases of intentional fractures, and give us only parts of the body, when they had originally represented whole animals. However, we often find drawings of heads and, more rarely, hindquarters and legs, which, by their large size or, conversely, by the smallness of the surface that has been chosen for their implementation, seem to have been designed and implemented in isolation.

Of these drawings, we show here a Bison leg which is also remarkable for the treatment of the outline, in which a light bas relief technique adds more vigour than by concentrating on minute details.

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

horse head Isturitz

If we now turn to stone carvings, we find works that are not inferior in any way compared with engravings on bone. On a plaquette of sandstone, a profile of a horse with a fine neckline, face a little concave, with long ears, seems to belong to an Oriental type, perhaps a Tarpan, or a steppes horse. (The Przhewalsky horse is closely related to these animals - Don)

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)


Reconstruction of the tarpan, or wild European horse, Equus ferus.

Photo: Illustration by Daniel Pickering, Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Credit: Sandra Olsen, Carnegie Museum of Natural History


Przhewalsky horse

Przhewalsky horse, Equus ferus przhewalsky.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008

Source: Display, Vienna Natural History Museum

two bison on a plaque

A plate of pink sandstone bears two crossed Bisons almost intact, each with a slightly different attitude, but also interesting for the power and realism of the drawing. Many more or less simplified arrows are engraved on the area that is the common side of the two Bisons.

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

human figure

Although animals were the main theme of the artist at Isturitz, as in most Magdalenian deposits, man was sometimes represented. But his image has not been executed with more felicity than at Isturitz, with this depiction of a man with a beard and a big eye.

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

human figure

The character on the left is frankly ludicrous, with an enormous nose, drawn over the top of a drawing of a horse which may be seen clearly if the engraving is rotated.

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

human figure

The general inferiority of anthropomorphic representations has more to do with lack of care and interest. The people of the time were hunters, and to them the other animals were more important than their own kind, reflected in the superb quality of many animal representations.

(this figure may be wearing some sort of mask - Don)

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

Horse heads on hyoid bone

The method of carving a bone to the shape of an animal is represented by many works at Isturitz, mostly horse heads. They are almost all perforated, which suggests they could be used as pendants. They are obtained by cutting the base of the larger part of a horse hyoid bone, whose contour in this region is reminiscent of the shape of a horse. All that needs to be done is to carve the ends to more closely resemble the shape of a horse's head, and to carve the details of the face. But precisely because of the natural shape of the bone, elongated and concave, these heads are of very uneven artistic quality, depending on the corrections of the bone made by the artist. Here are two examples where the head is a little short, but the details of the nose, eyes and hair are rendered quite well.

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

Horse head on hyoid bone

Another, fragmented in ancient times, would have been too long if the ends had not been broken off, and it thus lacks an eye and an ear, but the mouth and mandible are powerful art.

(note the remnants of two holes. This looks like it could have been a toggle on clothing, and possibly originally had four holes to help fulfil this function - Don)

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

Horse head on hyoid bone

This horse's head is more complete, because here one no longer recognises the outline of the hyoid bone with its convexity on one side and concavity on the other, and it has gained a good resemblance to the horse. In addition, the two sides have been carefully designed. The head is massive, with a shaggy beard on the lower jaw, and a whole set of punctuation marks and incisions show the hair and the muscles. It exudes a feeling of intense life.

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

Isturitz horse

This appears to be a facsimile of the find above.

Photo: Kathy King 2010

Source: Facsimile, display at Musée d'archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

Ibex isturitz

If the horse is the animal most often represented in découpage, where the shape of the animal is shown by the outline on the flat bone on which it is carved as though cut out from paper, at Isturitz there are other animal species represented, including a profile, beard and large corrugated horn of an ibex treated with great accuracy. Animal representation by découpage is rare in Paleolithic art.

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

Reindeer isturitz

Isturitz provides many examples of sandstone sculptures. First we shall look at the deep engravings, true bas-reliefs, on small blocks of sandstone.

On one of them, we see the front of a reindeer, neck outstretched, mouth open, nostrils quivering, legs bent as if about to collapse. The attitude is that of an animal bellowing, as cervids do in rut. In front of this animal are two legs probably belonging to a horse, which may be distinguished by turning the object.

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

Horse isturitz
Real sculpture in the round was also used at Isturitz, either as isolated heads, or, more rarely, whole bodies. It was one of these which alarmed the fertiliser merchants into thinking that the cave at Isturitz had some scientific interest.

One example is this long and thin horse's head, where the contours of the jaw, the top of the head and the mane remain well-defined, despite the deterioration suffered while in the ground. It is complete, showing no sign of fracture.

View in profile, 1 and 4, above and below, 2 and 3.

Photo: De Saint-Périer (1935)

(the drawing by Breuil mentioned below was not included in the paper, and I have been unable to locate an image - Don)
This sculpture, where we see a Lynx, is now lost and is known only by a drawing by Abbé Breuil from a photograph which was communicated to him at the time of discovery and which showed, in addition, a human jaw, which allowed Abbé Breuil to assess fairly accurately the size of the sculpture.

Les oiseaux d'Isturitz

The birds of Isturitz

Bouchud (1952)

Translated and adapted by Don Hitchcock

In the Basque Country, south-west of the village of Isturitz (Canton d'Hasparren, arrondissement de Bayonne), stands a hill of Aptian (lower Cretaceous) limestone and near the top is the cave known as Isturitz. It comprises two parts: the "Salle Saint-Martin" and the "Grande Salle". In this work, we study the birds found in the Aurignacian levels thereof. The remains found there were almost all carried there by man, because the layer without human artefacts contains only very few examples, and most of the bones are not broken in the manner of the remains of meals of large raptors.

Middle Aurignacian
NumberSpecies      Common Name        
1Anas platyrhynchusMallard Duck
1Buteo ferox (now rufinusLong-legged Buzzard
3Corvus corax Common Raven
4Corvids sp.  
1Falco peregrinus Peregrine Falcon
1Falco tinnunculus Common Kestrel
2Lyrurus tetrix Black Grouse
1Mergus serrator Red-breasted Merganser
6Pyrrhocorax alpinus Alpine Chough
1Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax Red-billed Chough
1Spatula clypeata  Northern Shoveler
1Tadorna tadorna Common Shelduck
2Tetrao urogallus Western Capercaillie
Total 25 (12 species)  

Final Aurignacian
NumberSpecies      Common Name        
2Anas platyrhynchusMallard Duck
2Coleus monedulaJackdaw
2Corvus corax Common Raven
3Corvids sp.  
1Falco tinnunculus Common Kestrel
1Lagopus albus Willow Grouse
1Mergus serrator Red-breasted Merganser
9Pyrrhocorax alpinus Alpine Chough
1Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax Red-billed Chough
Total 22 (8 species)  

Superior Aurignacian
NumberSpecies      Common Name        
1Aegypius monachusBlack Vulture
1Aquila chrysaetosGolden Eagle
2Buteo buteoCommon Buzzard
1Buteo lagopusRough-legged Buzzard
2Coleus monedulaJackdaw
2Corvus corax Common Raven
3Corvids sp.  
1Falco peregrinus Peregrine Falcon
1Falco tinnunculus Common Kestrel
1Gyps fulvus Griffon Vulture
1Lagopus mutus  Rock Ptarmigan
1Lyrurus tetrix Black Grouse
1Mergus serrator Red-breasted Merganser
1Nucifraga caryocatactes Spotted Nutcracker
2Nyctea nyctea Snowy Owl
1Otus scops Scops Owl
1Oidemia fusca Velvet Duck
7Pyrrhocorax alpinus Alpine Chough
2Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax Red-billed Chough
1Turdus torquatus Ring Ouzel
1Tyto alba Barn Owl
Total 34 (20 species)  


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  23. White, R., 2007: Systems of Personal Ornamentation in the Early Upper Palaeolithic: Methodological Challenges and New Observations, Ch 24,

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