It’s hardly surprise that Cueva de Ardales, one of Europe’s richest rock art sites, contains so many paintings — the residents had plenty of time to practice. According to recent findings, the southern Spanish cave provided a safe haven for Neanderthals and modern people for at least 50,000 years.
Previous research on the paint on the walls of Cueva de Ardales dates it to 65,000 years ago, making it the world’s oldest cave art. An archaeological examination of the cave published in PLOS One does not go that far back, but it did uncover charcoal dating back more than 58,000 years. Any human residents of Europe at the time were Neanderthals.
Modern people are supposed to have arrived in the area just approximately 30,000 years ago, but the dig also unearthed many artefacts from after that period. Apart from continuing to decorate the cave’s walls, contemporary humans utilized it as a burial ground until the Copper Age approximately 7,000 years ago.
However, this was not a case of homes replacing caves as a kind of protection from the weather. Instead, the authors of the research, lead by Dr. Jose Ramos-Muoz of the University of Cadiz, say that what they discovered shows the Cueva de Ardales “was not a campground, but was mostly frequented to carry out non-domestic chores, such as the fabrication of rock art or the burial of the dead.”
As such, it has significant symbolic importance and represents one of the finest possibilities for us to explore prehistoric European civilization. Tools discovered nearby show that humans camped a short distance away near a spring.
The walls of Cueva de Ardales include around 1,000 paintings and engravings. Near the entryway, the earliest are largely abstract red finger markings and hand stencils, while the interior includes more contemporary animal paintings and engravings. The paintings are difficult to date with certainty, however uranium/thorium examination of paint flecks has indicated that some were created during Neanderthal times. Seven years of excavating around the cave’s entrance has yielded several artefacts whose ages may be deduced from the sedimentary strata in which they are found.
The site is rich in charcoal, and the excavation yielded several dispersed bones and teeth, including the jaw of a 12-year-old kid and shards of pottery. Other bones show which animals were eaten there, either for sustenance or as religious sacrifices. Some of the tools discovered in the cave look to be handmade.
The cave’s old entrance was shut by a landslide somewhere in the previous 4,000 years, and it was assumed to remain unvisited until its rediscovery in 1821. Some of the charcoal, however, originates from the 16th or 17th centuries. A fragment of partially calcified rope of comparable age discovered on a rock ledge suggests that people entered the cave in the few millennia before its discovery, but likely required climbing equipment to avoid the collapse.
There are several reasons for archaeologists to return to Cueva de Ardales. The vast portion of the cave floor has not been excavated. “We chose to dig the entry because it exhibited huge sections that were sealed by massive flowstone formations that protected the sediments underneath from subsequent intrusions,” the scientists write, but there is still much more to learn. This might indicate if a 7,000-year gap with no evidence of human presence from 43,000 to 36,000 years ago supports the theory that people were not present in southern Iberia at the time.
Although the Cueva de Ardales was dubbed “the most impressive cave with Paleolithic rock painting in southern Iberia” by the article, it was far from alone. Thirty more are known, as well as considerably richer sites in northern Spain.
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