“Most important”: huge ancient cave art site discovered

A cave in southern Spain has been described as the most important Palaeolithic art site found within the region, with illustrations believed to be about 24,000 years old, lining its interior.

‘Cueva Dones’ near Valencia was previously unrecognised as a potential site of significance, having been visited by cave explorers for years without the internal paintings being seen. The region is also less frequently linked to major archaeological sites compared to other parts of Andalusia, or northern regions of Spain.

But a visit by archaeologists from two Spanish universities in 2021 allowed the significance of the 500-metre-long cave to be understood for the first time.

Two 'hinds' - female red deer - painted on the cuvea dones walls.
Two ‘hinds’ – female red deer – painted on the Cuvea Dones walls. Credit: Ruiz-Redondo/Barciela/Martorell

“When we saw the first painted auroch [an ancient wild bull], we immediately acknowledged it was important,” says Dr Aitor Ruiz-Redondo, a senior lecturer in prehistory at Zaragoza University in Spain.

“Although Spain is the country with the largest number of Paleolithic cave art sites, most of them are concentrated in northern Spain. Eastern Iberia is an area where few of these sites have been documented so far.

“However, the actual ‘shock’ of realizing its significance came long after the first discovery. Once we began the proper systematic survey we realized we were facing a major cave art site, like the ones that can be found elsewhere in Cantabrian Spain, southern France or Andalusia, but that totally lack in this territory.”

What’s on the walls?

Ruiz-Redondo and his colleagues have confirmed 19 different animals etched into the cave walls including 7 horses, 7 female red deer, 2 aurochs and a stag. Two other undetermined animals have also been recorded.

The remainder of the 110 illustrations include shapes and signs, with the researchers surprised by the atypical composition of the figures.

While techniques consistent with other cave paintings were observed, some figures were drawn by scraping out precipitated limestone from the wall surface. Red clay found on the cave floors was the medium of choice for the Cueva Dones occupants – rather than the diluted ochre or manganese typically used in other places throughout the region. Clay-based painting is a rarely-used technique in Palaeolithic art.

“Animals and signs were depicted simply by dragging the fingers and palms covered with clay on the walls,” says Ruiz-Redondo.

“The humid environment of the cave did the rest. The paintings dried quite slowly, preventing parts of the clay from falling down rapidly, while other parts were covered by calcite layers, which preserved them until today.”

Research into the Cuvea Dones continues. Ruiz-Rendondo’s team expect to confirm more paintings in the coming months.

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