Once I started research for this entry, I quickly came to appreciate the rich history that Spain has when it comes to cave living. What’s more, further discoveries are still being made !
To fully understand cave living in Spain though, we first have to travel back in time … a really, really long way back in time !
Our time travel begins as far back as 1.2 million years ago at Cueva Victoria, in El Estrecho de Sans Gines, Murcia. This cave has revealed some of the most important fossil deposits in Europe and some of the oldest human remains in existence. Human remains found here, (together with Orce) are the oldest in Western Europe.
Sadly though, there is no evidence that the cave was ever inhabited by humans. What is known, is that hyenas used this cave and they brought in the majority of the bones when they fed their young (gulp !).
So I guess it’s no good looking for any long-lost troglodyte relatives there then !
Travelling forward in time, we arrive a mere 400,000 years ago.
We now find ourselves in the Atapuercha Mountains of Northern Spain, at a place named ‘Sima de los huesos‘ (the pit of bones). This site is located at the bottom of a 13-metre (43-foot) deep “chimney” reached by scrambling through the cave system of the Cueva Mayor. A total of 28 skeletons have been found, with the excavators suggesting that the concentration of bones in the pit may represent the practice of burial by the inhabitants of the cave.
DNA analysis in March 2016 revealed some of the bones to be 400,000 years old, corresponding to the Middle Pleistocene.
Meaning this could be the oldest cave house in Spain !
We are literally hurtling forward in time as we arrive at Cueva de Gorham in Gibraltar. A natural sea cave and one of the last known habitations of Neanderthals (became extinct 40,000 years ago).
An engraving found in July 2012 not only confirms the cave was inhabited, but is also the most compelling evidence of Neanderthal art.
From South to North, we visit Cueva El Castillo, in Cantabria. This cave can lay claim to the worlds oldest known cave art. The ‘hand stencils’ are at least 40,800 years old (Europe’s oldest by 4000 years) and confirm Neanderthals were earths first cave painters.
Whilst there are many more caves in Spain where prehistoric cave paintings can be found, the most famous is Cueva de Altamira. Also in Cantabria, it is known as the Sistine chapel of paleolithic art. Discovered in 1879, it was the first cave in the world where prehistoric cave paintings were discovered. The paintings were created between 18,500 and 14,000 years ago.
So, as I said, there has been cave living in Spain for almost as long has there have been people living in Spain 🙂
What sets these apart though, is that what we have seen so far are natural cave formations that have simply been moved into.
So, when and where in Spain did we move from natural caves to man-made caves ?
The first man-made caves
The man-made, cave-dwelling tradition began with the Moors, who arrived in Spain in the year 711, beginning a period of history which would shape Iberia differently than the rest of Europe as the land adapted to a new religion, language and culture.
One likely historical explanation of cave building in Spain, is that the Arabs brought the tradition with them from the troglodyte abodes of North Africa.
In Granada, there are ancient settlements, with cave dwelling existing at least back to Arab times, well before the 15th century. The Albaycin (famous for the narrow winding streets of its Medieval Moorish past) and Sacromonte (traditional neighborhood of the Granadian Gipsies) are adjacent hillside cave-dwelling neighborhoods, dating back to Arab times. Both form part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the Alhambra Palace.
Guadix and Baza are similarly ancient cities, famous for their Moorish history and cave house communities.
Whilst In the Altiplano de Granada, spectacular galleries of abandoned Moorish cave houses can be seen high up in cliff faces in such places as Benamaurel (Las Hafas) and Castilléjar (La Morería).
Even at the other end of the Sierra Nevada mountain chain, near Almeria, but still in the Granada Province, cave dwelling has existed at least since the Arab invasion of Iberia in the 8th century.
So … basically, we can blame the cave-dwelling tradition on the Moors 🙂
Why is cave living in Spain concentrated in Granada region of Andalucia ?
In Andalusia cave homes are man-made, and are not natural formations that humans simply moved into. They are intentional dwelling spaces carved out of hard clay and earth, and owe their existence to the region’s peculiar geology – eruptions of rock formed from the sediments of a prehistoric sea. These rock formations lent themselves to the hand excavations of cave homes. The rock consists of sedimentary sandstone with layers of hard, almost horizontal rock inter-spaces with softer layers that could be dug by hand. The harder rock formed a layer impervious to water and provided the strength needed for a safe, secure roof to the caves.
The result is that the Granada Province has the largest cave dwelling population in Europe, with a total cave-dwelling population that runs into the tens of thousands.
In Granada, the most geographically diverse province in the Iberian Peninsula, there exist distinct concentrations of cave settlements, notably in the historic Albaycin and Sacromonte neighborhoods of Granada City.
The ancient cave dwelling area extends far beyond the contemporary city, into the hills and ravines. Here some squatters still live, laying claim to caves without running water or electricity and living rent-free.
Whilst in the market towns of Guadix, Baza and Huescar, there are entire districts of caves; in some of the surrounding villages, they are the only form of housing.
Cave living in Spain in the 19th Century
Although the tradition of cave living was started by the Moors, most caves were actually built (or carved) in the 19th century by peasant farm workers. Cave living was at its most active in the 19th and first part of the 20th Centuries.
Up until the late 1960’s the main industry in this area was the growing of hemp for the manufacture of rope and related items. Then growing hemp without a license became illegal. At the same time along came nylon, mechanization and the tourist industry … the local economy collapsed.
As a result, In the late 60’s and 70’s most rural workers fled the grinding poverty of life on the lands for jobs on the coast and in the major cities. The population in the area fell by 75% during this time period. Galera, renowned for its cave houses had a population of about 6,000 back then, today it sits at around 1,500, many of which are homes of retired foreign nationals.
By the end of this period, cave living had become associated with poverty, gypsy culture and unclean living (due to a lack of modern facilities).
Even today, If you wander the hills and valleys within this region (as we love to do), then you will be amazed to see just how many abandoned caves there still are.
What are you waiting for 😉
Modern day cave living in Spain
Over the last twenty years, there has been a substantial revival in the popularity of caves. Firstly as Spanish holiday homes, then for rural tourism (how our cave first came to be modernized) and now as both holiday and permanent homes for Spanish and foreign nationals alike.
The majority of cave houses lived in today have been modernised, some to a very high standard, but they all still keep many of their original features. Inside, their rounded walls and ceilings are almost always white-washed, giving them a light and airy yet cosy ambience.
Even those with claustrophobia find modern cave houses quite comfortable 🙂
All I can really say, is that once you become accustomed to cave living in Spain, it is so soothing to return to a home with the solidity of the earth and the silence of a church.
There are many benefits to living in a cave house, many of which we covered in a previous blog. More importantly, this entry also reveals just why we love living in a cave 🙂
And so I guess that about wraps up cave living in Spain !
If you want to keep up-to-date with our daily lives and what’s going on in our small but stunning part of Andalucia, then ‘like‘ and follow our one foot in the cave page on Facebook .
Finally, special thanks to Sean at Spanish Inland Properties for providing some of the information for this blog entry 🙂
So … Who are one foot in the cave ?
We (Danny and Josie) have spent the last 10 years living and working in the Caribbean. In 2015 we decided we wanted to move closer to family and friends so bought a cave house in the Granada region of Andalucia, Spain. We moved there full time in January 2017. Now we write about our experiences of cave living and how we are adapting to life in Spain.
We also have a Facebook page full of pictures, experiences and information that we have found useful along the way. If its your thing, you can also follow us on Instagram 🙂
5 words related to this blog entry …
History – La Historia
Time Travel – Viaje en el Tiempo
Abandoned – Abondonado
To Build – Construir
Poverty – La Povreza