Grotte d’Isturitz

The Grotte d’Isturitz is a cave in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department of France. This cave is situated on what was an important route across the Pyrenees during the ice ages¹. Its large size meant that it could accommodate big groups of people2. Those people all needed to eat, so it is not surprising that there was a designated cold store.

Image: Jean-Daniel Larribau: English annotation: Lynn Fawcett
Image: Jean-Daniel Larribau: English annotation: Lynn Fawcett

From this plan, you can see that the original entrance was at the northern end of the cave. At some point, the original entrance was closed, and a new entrance opened up to the south-east. The reason for this can be found on the pillar.

Image: Georges Laplace
Image: Georges Laplace

Research director: Diego Garate

‘A new in-depth examination of the figures of this pillar, done in 1970 by I. Barandiaran and G. Laplace, authenticated six animal representations: two small deer, a reindeer, a bear, an ibex and a horse3.’

The animals are represented by their outlines. They are merely intended to give an idea of what is to be stored at that end of the cave. It appears to have been designated as a cold store. At number five on the drawing, there is a symbol that resembles a combination of two Chinese radicals. The character fāng can be translated as a box or a basket. In the context of the cave, it is clearly a storage area. The opening on the right side is symbolic of death. It is oriented towards the West, where the sun sets and it was thought that people went when they died. The other character is . Jī is a stool, workbench or small table.

Author's Note

Good design never goes out of fashion.

If you look up ‘Chinese stool’ on the Web, you will find numerous images that resemble the jī shape. For at least 10,000 years this simple piece of equipment has served as our butcher’s block, carpenter’s bench, storage shelf, and more. For a time it was thought essential equipment for immortals, too. Bronze and wooden examples have been unearthed from Chinese tombs4.


Image Credits:

Plan: Larribau, Jean-Daniel, 1984: Plan de la grotte d'Isturitz et Saint-Martin-d'Arberoue: L’Art des Cavernes. Atlas des grottes ornées paléolithiques françaises. Paris: Ministère de la Culture, Imprimerie Imprimerie Nationale, p.280. From Europreart:

Engravings: Laplace, Georges, 1984: Relevé de l'ensemble gravé sur un pilier: L’Art des Cavernes. Atlas des grottes ornées paléolithiques françaises. Paris: Ministère de la Culture, Imprimerie Nationale, p.281. From Europreart:


1. and 2. La grotte d’Isturitz possède deux caractéristiques essentielles: Histoire_archeologique_de_la_colline_de_Gaztelu-523042.html

3. Diego Garate:

4.1 Bronze Zu: Chopping Board:

4.2 Wooden Zu: Nancy Berliner: Considering Influences from Afar: The Impact of Foreign Cultures on Chinese Furniture, p. 20 fig. 9: