People may have lived their lives on the surface of the land for thousands of years, but they have always been cognizant of another world, beguiling and disquieting, beneath their feet. Caves are doorways into that largely unknown subterranean world.
Deep within caves, we can come close to history. The history of the earliest humans, who decorated them with spectacular paintings, as well as more recent inhabitants, can be traced in caves. The abodes of gods, prophets, demons and the dead, caves and their otherworldly qualities have also been firmly established in millennia of folklore.
From prehistoric caves which play host to exceptional paintings, to grottos elevated to distinction by myth and legend, here are 7 caves that have served as stages for history.
1. Lascaux Cave – France
Few caves have so profound an effect on our imaginations than those at Lascaux. At this network of caverns in southwestern France, over 600 paintings ornament the walls and ceilings of ancient galleries, generally representing large animals of the Upper Palaeolithic. Dating to around 17,000 years ago, the paintings include stunning renditions of aurochs, horses and deer.
Europe’s largest surviving collection of Palaeolithic cave art was found by four boys and their dog during World War Two. On 12 September 1940, Marcel Ravidat and three friends slipped into a shaft that gave way to a monumental discovery. A copy of the Lascaux cave is displayed at the International Centre for Parietal Art in Montignac.
2. Sterkfontein – South Africa
25 miles northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa are the limestone caves of Sterkfontein, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. Analysis of the Sterkfontein caves had by 2010 resulted in over a third of the early hominid fossils ever found. It’s also where a near-complete skull of a possible adult female Australopithecus africanus was recovered in 1947, subsequently nicknamed Mrs. Ples.
3. The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas – China
The earliest caverns among the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, or Mogao Caves, date to the 4th century AD, and for centuries served as respite for travellers on the historic Silk Road.
Located in western China, the caves consist of a system of 500 temples which contain a wide range of Buddhist art. For the artefacts and manuscripts that have been discovered here, the caves are among the most famous ancient Buddhist sites in China.
4. Caves of Zeus – Greece
According to the Greek poet Hesiod, the god Zeus was secreted into a cave on a mountainside in Crete by his mother Rhea. She did this to spare him from his father Cronus, who had a nasty habit of swallowing his children. While delivering to Cronus a stone dressed up as Zeus, Rhea gave the real infant to the nymph/goat (it varies) Amalthea to nurse as her own.
The large double cavern is southwest of the village of Psychro, on the upland Lasithi plain, is one site popularly linked with the mythological cave. Since the late 19th century, locals, antiquarians and experts have recovered votive objects there. The island of Crete is rich in caves, and Zeus’ origins may alternatively be located on the slopes of Mount Ida, Crete’s tallest mountain.
5. Moss Chamber – England
Moss Chamber is named for the climber, Oscar Hackett Neil Moss, who in 1959 became stuck in a narrow tunnel of Peak Cavern, a cave in Derbyshire, England.
Moss’ struggle prompted one of the largest cave-rescue attempts in history, involving the RAF, navy and National Coal Board. However, the rescue attempt failed. Moss lost consciousness in Peak Cavern and was declared dead on 24 March. His father requested that his body be left in place, sealed by rocks, in order to avoid further climbers endangering themselves.
Peak Cavern was historically known as the Devil’s Arse, described as such in William Camden’ 1586 survey Britannia, but was renamed in 1880 before the presence of Queen Victoria.
6. Ellora Caves – India
One of the largest rock-cut Hindu temple cave complexes in the world is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ellora. 34 of the 100 basalt caves are open to the public, with the complex as a whole featuring sculptures depicting Hindu divinities and Hindu epic poetry. Artwork at the site dates to between 600 and 1000 AD. The caves were on an important trade route and served as a rest stop for pilgrims.
Throughout ancient myth, figures frequently dive into the underworld and often return changed. Ishtar, Mesopotamian goddess of sex and war, makes such a descent and sits on her sister’s throne, for which she is punished and turned into a corpse. Orpheus attempts to retrieve his wife Eurydice from the underworld, while Odysseus and Aeneas obtain fateful knowledge there.
Near Naples, Italy, is a cave discovered by archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri in 1932. He identified it as the cave at which the Trojan hero Aeneas met the Cumean Sibyl, an oracle who prophesied to him before his entry to the underworld. The cave, which is now part of Cumae Archaeological Park, boasts an impressive trapezoidal tunnel and defensive features, and was built between the 4th century BC and 1st century AD.