"The Past is Female" | Cultural Heritage. Goverment of Catalonia.


"The Past is Female"

Questioning our conceptions with the rock art of the Caves of El Cogul. What do we imagine when we think about women in prehistory? What do we think they looked like, and what do we think they did? We find out what the experts think about how women were represented between 12,000 and 4,500 years ago at the Roca dels Moros prehistoric site.

If we look to the past and think about the role played by women during the history of humanity we will probably have the feeling that we have stumbled across one of the great enigmas of our existence because it is obvious that, for centuries, women have been overlooked and have disappeared from such spheres as culture, science and art, and have been removed from the official account of things and, from a historical point of view, are all but invisible. Everyone accepts women's fundamental roles as mothers, as creators, but in all other spheres in which they act women have never been highly valued. In fact the opposite is the case, especially if we bear in mind that such omission has often been accompanied by barriers, obstacles, scorn and, on occasions, even contempt and derision.
We have started by taking a strong line, perhaps too strong, but we need to situate ourselves within a global context, one in which the annals of history were written by those who ruled at the time and who, to make matters worse, were mostly men, as we all know. If we are clear in our minds about how this official version of history is quite biased, imagine what it was like before when there weren't even any chroniclers, as in prehistory, for example. Now we are entering a much lesser known world, but one that is, at the same time, more open to interpretation. A world that is less 'contaminated', and more open to a debate which, fortunately in Catalonia, can be approached with greater clarity because of the exceptional heritage of prehistoric rock art preserved in the country.

A window on the past

What were prehistoric women like?
The first image that comes to mind might very well be the typical one seen in countless films, comics and even children's books, in which women occupy an absolutely submissive and secondary role always near the cave, looking after the children and collecting plants of various kinds. In contrast to such culturally absorbed clichés it is clear that the truth of the matter is different, very different. And this is where the Caves of El Cogul come in to challenge these clichés and, in their place, open up a space in which to consider the importance of the place occupied by women 10,000 years ago.
A window on the past has been provided by the Baroque and Renaissance art we have inherited, and by ancient Greek and Egyptian cultures amongst others, through which we can learn about the mind set and customs of the period, and it is the same with prehistory. Approximately 10,000 years ago a group of humans the same as us, that is to say homo sapiens, left an imprint of their passage through the world at El Cogul: a village in Lleida in the district of Les Garrigues. This prehistoric settlement was declared to be a World heritage Site by UNESCO in 1998 (along with other sites located along the Iberian Mediterranean basin) and it is one of the finest known examples of Levantine rock art.

  • Mnemòsine - Museu Nacional Arqueològic de Tarragona
  • Cap de la dama Flàvia – Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya (Barcelona)
  • Santa Cristina - Museu d’Art de Girona
  • La nena obrera – Museu d’Història de Catalunya

The El Cogul caves were discovered in 1908 and belong to an innovative tradition with respect to the Upper Palaeolithic period in which the human figure makes an appearance as a central character along with representations of animals. The site provides graphic testimony to the beliefs, ceremonies and activities of the last hunter gatherers of the Iberian peninsula, and the paintings have a figurative and naturalistic style to which Neolithic schematic art was added, culminating in Iberian and Latin inscriptions.
Context is of vital importance for any interpretation and the first thing to be considered when approaching these paintings is their location because everything would seem to suggest that the El Cogul caves were used for ritual and ceremonial purposes, and that they were venerated for centuries. It is therefore one of the oldest sacred places in Catalonia. The paintings, while defying explanation, have a very symbolic character. What can be established is that, because of the way they were painted, they were added to and took form over a period lasting thousands of years.
The geographer Ceferí Rocafort, first disseminator of the cave paintings of Cogul, in a photo in the Roca dels Moros. © Arxiu Fotogràfic Centre Excursionista de Catalunya

Paintings of a group of women

Notable amongst the extraordinary painted figures and large number of carvings is a painting of a group of women, because it enables us to reconsider the supposedly limited space they occupied in prehistory. It is a painting of nine female figures grouped in couples and they seem to be dancing around a male figure with a disproportionally large phallus. In English, the scene is known as the Dancers of El Cogul, in Catalan it is known as the Phallic Dance, which should not cause anyone to pull a face because, despite the obvious possible comments that could be made, (and any clumsy sexist use of the vernacular), the most surprising aspect of this painting is the fact that female figures are less numerous than in Levantine art. And while new figures are constantly being found as research continues, study of them is starting to undo the general notions that we have had thus far about the role of women in prehistory.

Carbon copy of the Rock Art Site of the Roca dels Moros del Cogul
Restitution of a social scene of the Rock Art Site of the Roca dels Moros del Cogul
Detail of a social scene of the Rock Art Site of the Roca dels Moros del Cogul

Firstly, the women represented in the cave painting exhibit a very clear concept of the female figure, and they are depicted as participating in an prominent role. On one hand, their attire is indicative because it is not ordinary. They are wearing bracelets and skirts, which would seem to suggest that they were important women taking part in an exceptional event. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that, as mentioned previously, the place chosen could be linked to something sacred and that, together with the unmistakably primary role of the women in the scene depicted, would indicate that they held important positions.
On the other hand, the male figure is not, as is often the case in Levantine art, a hunter. He could be the symbolic representation of fecundity, a character that might have formed part of that society's symbolism and understanding of the cosmos. Furthermore, the size of the women and the richness of the composition are also significant because, amongst other theories, it has been suggested that the scene depicts the friendship or affection the women felt for each other, or that it was women themselves who painted the scene.
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Rock Art Site of the Roca dels Moros del Cogul

Whatever the case may be, it is undeniable that, along with the artistic expression that took form thousands of years ago, the Caves of El Cogul contain a language and a message in which paintings serve as a direct link that enables us to have a closer understanding of the lives of our ancestors.

“The Past is Female”

It is precisely with the intention of drawing attention to this, and of questioning the received idea of the subjugation of women in prehistory, that the Associació d’Amics de les Pintures Rupestres del Cogul (Association of Friends of the El Cogul Cave Paintings) have produced some T-shirts that say "The past is female" in homage to prehistoric women, a sentiment that could perfectly well be applied to all other epochs.
The rock art of the El Cogul caves confirms that the role women have had throughout the ages is more important than might have previously been thought, and it corrects previous mainstream conceptions. Education about the perception of women and their role in society will be another challenge on the road to equality and, somewhat sooner, will at least acknowledge the role that women have really played in history.

Now that you know the history of the women of the Cogul, do not miss the original and visit the Rock Art Site of the Roca dels Moros del Cogul, one of the most emblematic and well-preserved cave sites in Catalonia that is part of the Rock Art Route. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.