Ice Age Rock Art
This museum reproduction of a male Ice Age ibex illustrates a single animal’s head looking both backward and forward with curved horns arching gracefully to touch each profile. Engraved about 25,000 years ago, this is unexpectedly sophisticated artistry and possibly even an example of early animation! Alison Gardner
Portugal Coa Valley
By Alison Gardner, Editor
Travel with a Challenge
“The Upper Paleolithic rock art of the Côa Valley is an outstanding example of the sudden flowering of creative genius at the dawn of human cultural development … The Côa Valley rock art throws light on the social, economic, and spiritual life of the early ancestor of humankind in a wholly exceptional manner.”
Excerpt from the UNESCO World Heritage Site description.
Crossing the Spanish border into northeastern Portugal, I drove a short distance to the Côa Valley (yellow dot), declared in 1994 by pre-eminent prehistoric scholar, Jean Clottes, to be “the biggest open air site of Palaeolithic rock art in Europe, if not the world.” In this little-known valley lies a vast art gallery 17 kilometers long, clearly demonstrating the impressive creativity of our human ancestors, from the Upper Paleolithic Age to the Iron Age.
Setting aside pre-conceived notions that early humans only created their art inside caves, here in plain view scattered across a far more accessible landscape are vertical flat-surfaced “panels” of hard granite-like rock revealing an artistic vitality mixed with graphic commentary on the life and times of the earliest modern humans in Europe.
Today small groups of adventurous 21st century humans access these treasures in guide-driven 4×4 jeeps, then go on foot in search of renderings of mountain goats, horses, aurochs (large wild cattle), deer and even warriors brandishing spears. They are no careless doodles to fill time in a hunter-gatherer’s day: they have substance, flow, detail, animals in herds or alone, turning heads for a graceful backward glance or lying in repose with legs tucked neatly under.
At one of three sites where the public may take a guided jeep and walking tour, an auroch is plainly visible, deeply outlined with a pecking technique using a flint or quartz tool. Dillon von Petzinger
Perhaps most amazing, this diverse array of engravings has been determinedly chiseled into the hard flat surfaces of schist rock using only the simplest of handmade flint or quartz tools. There are no soft limestone rock formations in northern Portugal — our Paleolithic artists had to use a lot more stamina than their contemporary artists in France and Spain in order to engrave what they saw passing their line of sight on what were often very large stone canvases!
This museum reproduction of an Ice Age deer taken directly from a schist rock is worthy of admiration for the rare rendering of animal hairs. On rock that hard, chiseling such a large number of hairs would have been a major undertaking! Alison Gardner
Exposed to the elements for millennia, many carvings achieved through the three techniques of sketching, pecking and abrasion have become almost invisible to the untrained eye while more sheltered panels remain clearly defined. They offer windows on a lifestyle where rivers provided water for drinking and catching fish, trees grew along the banks for shelter from the elements and wild animal herds offered food in abundance. Geologists tell us that the course of the river has not changed from ancient days, so it is easy to imagine this landscape jointly occupied tens of thousands of years ago by animals and humans.
The Côa River’s present-day route is virtually unchanged from its Ice Age flow, making it easy to visualize the landscape as our ancestors saw it. Dillon von Petzinger
Looking down a cliff to an Ice Age settlement site, it is not hard to imagine the abundance that kept Ice Age people in the area for tens of thousands of years. Alison Gardner
Genevieve von Petzinger, paleoanthropologist and rock art specialist shares:
“What makes the Côa Valley series of open-air sites so unique is that we get to see how they decorated the landscape in and around where they actually lived. This is in contrast to the majority of paintings and engravings from the European Ice Age which are found in caves. In many ways, the cave art was removed from daily life since people often had to make arduous, even dangerous, trips into the caves to create the images or to view them at a later time.
“The open-air Côa engravings offer a different perspective on this ancient art, raising questions about what the art may have meant to the people who made it and how it was incorporated into their world. Having spent the majority of my time documenting art in caves, it was an unusual experience to actually need sunblock while studying these amazing engravings!”
We recommend Genevieve von Petzinger’s richly-illustrated feature article in our Travel Article Library about some of Europe’s finest Ice Age Rock Art sites in France, Spain and Portugal where visitors are welcome.
In more recent times, generations of subsistence farmers and shepherds in this still-remote, sparsely-populated region of Portugal were surely aware of the decorated rocks, even adding a sketch or two of their own, it appears. Understandably they did not recognize the antiquity or unique significance of the earlier carvings so local inhabitants never thought them worth mentioning to outsiders. When the site’s antiquity was proven in the 1990s, it was almost too late to save the rock art from a watery grave.
Can you identify the different animals and species of animals illustrated in this “herd” rock panel visible on a Penascosa field tour? Dillon von Petzinger
Using state-of-the-art technology, the Archeological Park’s Museum helps visitors decipher selected field panels including one of overlapping animals by highlighting each animal in a different color. Alison Gardner
In 1995 construction on a new dam on the Côa River (a tributary of the Douro River) was already underway, soon to flood the lower levels of the valley and bury large areas of this newly-documented pre-historic find under water. In fact, an earlier dam in the 1980s on the Douro River whose reservoir converged on the Coa Valley had already submerged an unknown number of Palaeolithic carvings where they remain underwater today.
Powerful proponents of the new dam project moved swiftly to discredit the age and importance of the extensive site. However, with world interest mobilized by archaeologists and UNESCO, and anti-dam campaigns mounted by Portuguese citizens of every age whose slogan became “the carvings can’t swim”, the threat to the Côa Valley’s ancient rock art was soon curtailed.
UNESCO also moved quickly, declaring the Côa Valley a World Heritage Site of great cultural significance in 1998. Their selection committee expanded this prestigious recognition by bundling Siega Verde, located across the Spanish border on another Douro tributary, with the massive Côa collection. Hundreds of panels with thousands of animal figures (5,000 to date in Côa and around 440 in Siega Verde) were carved in the same period between 25,000 and 10,000 years, underscoring the importance of “the most remarkable open-air ensemble of Paleolithic art” ever found. The unfolding story of this site is far from over, with archaeologists identifying more new panels with every field survey they conduct.
Auroch, the much larger ancestor of modern cattle, were a favorite subject of Côa Valley’s Ice Age artists. Alison Gardner
Exploration of the Archaeological Park’s publically accessible sites is only permitted on an escorted tour. Alison Gardner
Guided tours of the museum are recommended to gain the best understanding of engravings and the Ice Age people who lived in the area. Alison Gardner
Though this unique heritage destination remains largely unfamiliar to the majority of travelers, Europeans have had the Côa Valley Archaeological Park and its impressive inter-active museum on their travel radar for a decade. Opened in 2010, the award-winning museum itself perches on a cliff-top a few kilometers outside the town of Vila Nova de Foz Côa between the Côa and Douro Rivers. State-of-the-art in design and in its 21st century use of technology, the museum’s construction was 70% funded by the European Union. If possible, visitors should allow time for a thorough tour of the museum before heading out on any field tours.
Follow up FactsGuided tours to rock art sites within the vast Archaeological Park are restricted to three of the most important sites in the Côa Valley. Walking over rough terrain is necessary, so practical clothing and footwear are advised. Tours should be booked in advance, tel: +351 279 768 260 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check full booking information.
Though most people arrive in the warmer months, the park is open year round except for Mondays and a few public holidays. The growing popularity of river cruising on the nearby Douro River has increased the awareness of the Archeological Park as an educational shore excursion for cruise clients. The region is particularly beautiful in early spring when almond trees are in bloom and in autumn when grape leaves turn fiery red.
Did Neanderthal populations and Homo Sapiens cross paths while living in the Côa Valley? See a new scientific article dated June 19, 2020, that lays out how they most likely did share the valley for a brief time period based on recently proven dating techniques. This would make the Côa Valley Neanderthals likely the last holdouts of their species in Europe. Read about it.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com. Email: email@example.com.
Special thanks to expert rock art photographer and videographer, Dillon von Petzinger, for providing “in the field” engraved images which are extremely difficult to capture for the average photographer, either in caves or at open-air sites.