Humans lived here from 30,000 years ago until 3,000 years ago. Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway both came here – 20 miles by donkey from Ronda. Ringo Starr made music here, and apparently, tourists from xxxxx, xxxxxx and xxxxxx [redacted, ed] tend to behave badly here.
“Here” is the Cueva de la Pileta, a spectacular cave system discovered in 1905 by Jose Bullon Lobato, whose family still owns the land, and manages the site. “Pileta” means pool, so you won’t be surprised to learn that there is a big pool there – in fact there are several.
In the 1970s a road was built which passes close by, so it is easy to visit today, unlike when Hemingway and Welles came. And it is worth it: there are beautiful and intriguing cave paintings, including some of a type rarely found outside Africa. Some of the cave rooms are gigantic, and there are magnificent stalactites and stalagmites. Since it is of course indoors, and the temperature is a balmy 15 degrees all the time, it makes a great excursion in the winter, or in the height of summer – the 90% humidity is not oppressive. (Honest.) And your guide, Tomas Bullon, the great-grandson of the discoverer, is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the site, and responds very warmly to visitors who demonstrate genuine curiosity.
The entire cave system is three kilometres long, but most of it is not accessible to the casual visitor. To arrange your visit, just call the number given on the website (here), turn up 15 minutes before your appointment, park your car, and climb the short stairway to the ticket office and the cave entrance. Outside peak times you can call and visit on the same day, but during holidays you should probably plan ahead.
For most people, the initial attraction will be the cave paintings, and they are world class. The oldest ones were made 30,000 years ago, and depict animals and hunters. As in more famous caves elsewhere, like Lascaux in France, the depictions of bison and horses are startlingly lifelike and beautiful, their graceful lines suggesting that the artists were familiar with their subjects to the point of obsession. The paint is a mixture of animal fat and compounds of metals like copper (red), iron (brown) and manganese (black). Jointly, they stain the rock deeply like a tattoo.
Sometimes there are animals superimposed on each other, and chemical analysis has shown that the more recent paintings are closer to us in time than they are to the earlier ones. The more recent paintings don’t obscure the older ones; rather they seem to pay homage to them.
It is believed that the animal paintings were executed as part of a sacred ritual, probably one in which deities were asked to send more prey. They are found in the deeper caves, and the artists made their way there by the light of candles placed in oyster shells. There are no paintings in the living quarters, which were closer to the cave entrance, where some traces of natural light could penetrate. Some of the walls near the entrance are scorched black by millennia of camp fires.
A couple of small side caves near the entrance contain collections of bones and pottery left by the Stone Age inhabitants. There are more of these remains in museums in Malaga, Madrid, and London, and our guide fears they are not as well preserved there, because the consistently benign temperature and humidity cannot be maintained.
Starting with Tomas’ great-grandfather, the Bullon family have seen themselves as custodians of the cave and its treasures. Laboriously, and over decades, they carved steps into the cave floor so that researchers, and (later) closely supervised tourists could witness their wonders.
One of the most striking features of the Cueva de la Pileta is the more recent type of painting. The early art is all representations of animals and people, but around 5,000 years ago a new type of picture appeared: straight lines, with other straight lines coming off in parallel branches, and occasional grids. They are all in black, abandoning the red, browns and yellows of the animal paintings. The immediate thought they inspire is that they were used to help the early humans count, and this is indeed what the experts think.
What happened to change the nature of the painting was the agricultural revolution. When humans were foragers and hunters they didn’t need to keep detailed records of the seasons, or to count the days and weeks since they planted seeds and perhaps irrigated them. When they began to depend on cultivated crops, this kind of record-keeping became essential.
Apparently, the black line counting drawings are not found in any other caves north of Africa. Tomas Bullon thinks they were made by people who crossed the Mediterranean when it was frozen over during the last ice age. It is intriguing to think that the entire global population of homo sapiens in those days was a mere million or so.
A couple of millennia after these black line paintings were made, the caves were abandoned. People had learned how to use metal tools, which in turn meant they could build habitable homes. Perhaps they felt less vulnerable to attack by bears and wolves out in the open.
Even more spectacular than the paintings – and much longer in the making – are the stalactites and stalagmites. Stalactites come down (mnemonic: the name contains a “c” for ceiling) and stalagmites go up (mnemonic: it has a “g” for ground), and they are both formed in limestone caves when calcium carbonate is precipitated out of the rock by water seeping through from the ground above. When stalactites and stalagmites meet, they form columns. Using his powerful torch, Tomas delights in pointing out formations which resemble castles, cathedrals, and features which H. R. Giger designed for the Alien movie franchise.
The periods of time it takes to form the larger structures are difficult to fathom: they grow at the glacial pace of a centimetre every century. A few of them have a characteristic which makes this somehow more comprehensible: they have been snapped off by earthquakes which shook the caves thousands of years ago. Growth has continued, but in miniature, like little houses on a plateau.
In one section of the cave, the columns have taken the form of drapes, sinuously curving in and out. Tomas takes great pleasure in carefully striking a few of these to show how they generate different musical notes. He explains that the Beatles used to holiday in Tarifa in the 1960s, a hundred kilometres to the south, and one day they visited the caves with a BBC camera crew, who recorded Ringo Starr “playing” the stalactites and stalagmites of the Cueva de la Pileta. Sadly, it seems the BBC has lost the footage. By way of modest consolation, Tomas allowed a couple of musicians to record some sounds there in 2015, and you can listen to the results here.
It is thousands of years since humans lived in the caves, but they are still inhabited. Thousands of bats make their homes here, although they escape into deeper, darker parts of the cave system whenever humans approach. They leave behind prodigious amounts of excrement, or guano, which is excellent fertiliser. A much smaller inhabitant is the tiny, white, blind scorpion, a mere millimetre long. You can see them on top of the stalagmites, but don’t try to touch them: the oils in your skin will damage the slowly growing rock formation.