Ancient Sanctuary Is Discovered in El Juyo Cave Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Leslie G. Freeman and Joaquín González Echegaray excavated the remains of a fourteen-thousand-year-old sanctuary cave in Spain, they discovered the first material evidence of communal religious rituals.

Summary of Event

Leslie G. Freeman and Joaquín González Echegaray have cooperated in a number of excavations in Spain. In 1968 and 1969, their discovery of the thirty-thousand-year-old mold of an Aurignacian burial in Cueva Morin, captured in fuzzy outline by the dripping water and fine sediments of the cave, made archaeological history. In the 1970’s, Freeman and González Echegaray again teamed up to explore the subsistence practices of the last industrial phase of the Paleolithic, the fourteen-thousand-year-old Magdalenian culture. The abundance and variety of plant and animal life in Spain’s north coastal Cantabrian region was noteworthy, and even when glaciation made other regions uninhabitable, the area supported a dense human population. The research team decided to begin their search in three Cantabrian caves: Altamira (the famous site whose breathtaking painted bisons were the first examples of Paleolithic cave art recognized by the scientific world), Rascano, and El Juyo. Magdalenian culture Anthropology;Magdalenian culture El Juyo cave [kw]Ancient Sanctuary Is Discovered in El Juyo Cave (Aug., 1979) [kw]Sanctuary Is Discovered in El Juyo Cave, Ancient (Aug., 1979) [kw]Discovered in El Juyo Cave, Ancient Sanctuary Is (Aug., 1979) [kw]El Juyo Cave, Ancient Sanctuary Is Discovered in (Aug., 1979) [kw]Cave, Ancient Sanctuary Is Discovered in El Juyo (Aug., 1979) Magdalenian culture Anthropology;Magdalenian culture El Juyo cave [g]Europe;Aug., 1979: Ancient Sanctuary Is Discovered in El Juyo Cave[03680] [g]Spain;Aug., 1979: Ancient Sanctuary Is Discovered in El Juyo Cave[03680] [c]Archaeology;Aug., 1979: Ancient Sanctuary Is Discovered in El Juyo Cave[03680] [c]Anthropology;Aug., 1979: Ancient Sanctuary Is Discovered in El Juyo Cave[03680] [c]Prehistory and early cultures and civilizations;Aug., 1979: Ancient Sanctuary Is Discovered in El Juyo Cave[03680] Freeman, Leslie G. González Echegaray, Joaquín

Freeman and González Echegaray dug in some of the unexplored sections of Altamira and the subalpine site of Rascano, but they recovered little from these already well-explored caves. In 1978, they shifted their activities to El Juyo, where earlier testing had revealed a deep deposit of Magdalenian materials rich in subsistence-related data. Sealed by a rockfall and subsequent stalagmite formation, El Juyo’s living floors had remained undisturbed for at least fourteen thousand years.

The initial phase of the El Juyo excavations revealed the hoped-for evidence of economic activities. The pair discovered that El Juyo’s Magdalenian inhabitants were a nomadic group experienced in hunting red deer and gathering shellfish and whose seasonal migratory pattern may well have taken them some 16 kilometers distant to the site of Rascano to hunt ibex.

One mid-August morning, however, the excavators uncovered evidence of a very different kind: a stone slab, 2 meters by 1 meter by 15 centimeters and weighing nearly a ton. This huge piece of stalagmite had been carried at least 11 meters and placed in position near the back of the cave by the prehistoric inhabitants. Beneath it were several smaller stones, set upright to support the big stone, and a row of twenty-six unbroken bone spear points.

The archaeological team suspected the presence of an elaborate grave, but beneath the stone they instead discovered a complex earth feature. For two months, they meticulously scraped away layer after layer of this feature, guided at times by only the faintest changes in soil color and texture. What emerged was a picture of an elaborate group effort on the part of the Magdalenian builders of the place and possible evidence for the earliest religious sanctuary ever discovered in a Paleolithic deposit.

During the first phase of Magdalenian construction, the stone debris on the cave floor had been cleared to make a triangular space. A trench was then excavated in this area. The bottom of the trench was covered with clean sand, on which a lump of white clay, some seashells, and deer ribs and feet were carefully arranged and covered with more clean sand and a layer of rose-colored ocher (red iron pigment mixed with animal fat). An antler tine, point down, was thrust into the ocher, and loose dirt from the surrounding cave floor was packed into the trench to a height level with the top of the antler. Finally, the whole area was covered with a layer of clean sand and more ocher.

In the next construction phase, a mound about eight-tenths of a meter thick was built over the filled trench. This mound consisted of alternating levels that Freeman and González Echegaray labeled “offering” layers (thin layers of burnt animal remains, vegetal materials, and ocher) and “fill” layers (thick levels composed of carefully arranged circular lots of earth). To create the fill layers, Magdalenian builders employed the same technique children use to make sand castles: They filled straight-sided, cylindrical containers (each 10 centimeters long and 10 centimeters in diameter) with packed clay. The clay cylinders were carefully turned out of the containers and arranged in groups of seven to form “rosettes,” with one central lot surrounded by a circle of six others. The empty spaces between the cylinders were filled with clean clay, and the surface of each cylinder was covered with a layer of colored clay—red, yellow, green, or black—to form flowerlike patterns. When completed, the mound was topped with a few bone spear points and some lumps of red ocher, then sealed with a yellow clay layer ringed by twenty-six unbroken spear points. The hole was finally capped with the enormous limestone slab.





González Echegaray and Freeman also uncovered a smaller structure oriented at a right angle to the first and joined to it by a tube lined with some black, greasy organic residue. The building pattern was similar, with the substitution of a lump of red ocher and a hollow filled with black earth (perhaps the remains of an object more perishable than the antler tine used in the other mound). Here, the clay cylinders were used to make a double-line pattern instead of rosettes. Stones outlined the mouth of the joining tube, and the entire small mound was encircled with a stone and clay wall that completely separated the small structure from the large one. Finally, another big rectangular stone slab had been propped upright at an 80-degree angle to the horizontal and set parallel to the length of the smaller structure. This unusual complex of structures was accompanied by some small circular pits containing seashells, bits of ocher, and eye-bone needles. Oddly, many needles had been placed in a vertical position in the pits. Most intriguing of all, however, was the stone sculpture that stood guard over the cave complex.

The stone for the sculpture had been carried from outside the cave mouth and set into place at the back, facing the entrance and directly overlooking the small structure. The rock, which stands 36 centimeters high and 33 centimeters wide, was then shaped by a Magdalenian artist into the representation of a human head. Natural flaws in the stone which suggested a mouth and an eye were extended with chisel marks to outline lips and teeth. Further engraving added a second eye, a nose, a moustache, a hairline, and a beard. Close inspection revealed additional surprises. A natural fissure divides the stone vertically into two distinct halves, and the ancient artist had added some peculiar features to the left side: a deeply chiseled tear duct, a triangular engraving suggesting an animal nose, a muzzle with a single long fang, and what proved, upon laboratory examination, to be dots of paint added to suggest whisker roots. In short, the face in the cave was a dual entity, half human and half feline.

As a whole, the complex of El Juyo must have been the product of group activity, for the movement of the stone slabs and the elaborate fill construction would have required many people to accomplish. The complex is completely unlike an ordinary Paleolithic living cave and suggests a much more esoteric symbolic meaning. Freeman and González Echegaray had discovered the remains of the earliest known evidence of complex religious belief and group ritual.


Although the recovery of prehistoric artifacts suggesting religious meaning is not unusual, the richness of El Juyo’s remains is unique. The very complexity of its construction makes interpretation difficult, and numerous explanations have been offered. Freeman and González Echegaray point out that religious ritual (symbolic behavior employed to influence the supernatural) is largely arbitrary and obscure. It, therefore, cannot be explained in terms of its usefulness in solving everyday problems. Such behavior often involves a belief in spiritual entities and the cooperation of a number of people in activities aimed at influencing such beings. Ideally, an archaeologist searching for evidence of prehistoric ritual behavior hopes for a material representation of the spiritual entity and remains resulting from group participation in symbolic interactions with this entity.

El Juyo’s excavators did not find the kind of cultural material—food debris and broken tools—usually associated with everyday living activities. Only selected animal bones, unbroken spear points and needles, and ocher were found in the sanctuary area. Furthermore, the complex structure of the mounds and the size of their covering slabs suggests the cooperative efforts of many people.

Most intriguing of all is the stone face, whose dual nature is apparent only when examined closely, from a peculiar angle, and with special lighting. Prehistoric depictions of animals and human beings are not unique to El Juyo, but the combining of both into one face is totally unknown elsewhere. Freeman and González Echegaray believe this dualism may have been intended to give the statue a “public” meaning to all onlookers and an “occult, esoteric” meaning to a chosen few. They argue that it could represent an example of “complementary oppositions” (red/white, projecting antler tine/hollow depression, spear points in mounds/needles in pits, human/feline, human/savage), symbolisms common among modern populations.

The complex might also have been utilized in shamanistic activities. Anthropologists speculate that shamans were possibly the earliest type of religious specialists. Interestingly, modern shamans are often believed to be able to change from human to animal (wolf, jaguar, and the like), thus giving rise to tales of werewolves and shape-shifters. Perhaps the stone face was used in rituals in which a select few were initiated into the mysteries of the shaman.

A symbol system as complex as that of El Juyo provides much opportunity for speculation. It would seem that the complex probably was a sanctuary where some kind of group ritual was carried out. Others have argued that it may also represent the loss of social equality and the beginning of a status system in which some people had access to a restricted knowledge unavailable to others. The debates will undoubtedly continue for many years. The work of Freeman and González Echegaray has provided the materials with which to attempt the reconstructions of humankind’s most fascinating cultural manifestation—the beginnings of formalized religious rituals and group belief. Magdalenian culture Anthropology;Magdalenian culture El Juyo cave

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freeman, Leslie G., and Joaquín González Echegaray. “El Juyo: A 14,000-Year-Old Sanctuary from Northern Spain.” History of Religions 21 (August, 1981): 1-19. Provides a detailed description of the El Juyo excavations and extensive discussion of the importance of the finds to the knowledge of the development of prehistoric religion. Theoretical orientation reflects that of the excavators; not all anthropologists might agree with their interpretations of the finds. Illustrated, with useful references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Freeman, Leslie G., Richard G. Klein, and Joaquín González Echegaray. “A Stone Age Sanctuary: Archaeological Finds in Spain Reveal the Existence of Religious Behavior 14,000 Years Ago.” Natural History 92 (August, 1983): 46-53. Presents a brief description of the El Juyo excavations, a very good general outline of the cultures of the Upper Paleolithic with particular focus on the Cantabrian region of Spain, and a brief discussion of the evidence for Paleolithic religion. Most useful for someone with limited knowledge of Paleolithic archaeology. Illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pfeiffer, John E. The Creative Explosion: An Inquiry into the Origins of Art and Religion. New York: Harper & Row, 1982. Provides a good summary of evidence for Paleolithic art and religion. Considers the importance of the El Juyo discovery in the context of the development of Paleolithic belief systems and worldview. Speculative, with conclusions not all anthropologists would accept, but well written and thought-provoking.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Emergence of Humankind. 4th ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Popular book on paleoanthropology includes an interesting chapter on the development of religion among Paleolithic peoples and puts the finds of El Juyo in the more general context of human evolution as a whole. Outdated in its descriptions of fossil finds, but useful for readers with limited knowledge of the field.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “Inner Sanctum.” Science 82 3 (January/February, 1982): 66-68. Brief, popular article on the El Juyo excavations makes the suggestion that the finds reflect the rise of institutionalized status and privilege. Intriguing speculations and lively descriptions. Includes an interesting artist’s reconstruction of the El Juyo cave.

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