Cueva de Ardales in Málaga, Spain, is a famous site containing more than 1,000 prehistoric cave paintings and engravings. It also includes artefacts and human remains. But since its discovery in 1821, after an earthquake unearthed the entrance, the way ancient humans used the cave has been a mystery.
New research, published in PLoS ONE, on items from the first excavation have shed light on prehistoric Iberia’s human inhabitants.
Archaeologists from Spain, Germany and Denmark collaborated to analyse the paintings, relics and human bones from the cave.
Combining radiometric dating – measuring the presence of radioactive elements such as carbon-14 to determine the age of remains – with other analysis of artefacts from the site, the researchers have determined the first occupants of Cueva de Ardales, arriving more than 65,000 years ago, were likely Neanderthals.
Modern humans came to use the cave around 30,000 years later. This timeframe coincides with the disappearance of Homo neanderthalensis some 40,000 years ago. Homo sapiens used the cave sporadically until as recently as the beginning of the Copper Age, around 7,000 years ago.
Rock art is believed to be an indication of humankind’s first attempts to understand, rationalise and abstract the external world. Our ability to imagine and communicate through language, writing, science, art and abstractions are likely consequences of such leaps in ancient human culture.
The authors write: “Our research presents a well-stratified series of more than 50 radiometric dates in Cueva de Ardales that confirm the antiquity of Palaeolithic art from over 58,000 years ago. It also confirms that the cave was a place of special activities linked to art, as numerous fragments of ochre were discovered in the Middle Palaeolithic levels.”
The oldest examples of cave art in the Málaga site include abstract signs such as dots, finger tips and hand stencils created with red pigment. Later artwork involves more complex paintings and figures such as animals.
Human remains indicate the use of the cave as a burial place in the Holocene – the period of geological time since the end of the last major glacial epoch, or “ice age”, around 12,000 years ago.
There is limited evidence of domestic activities at Cueva de Ardales, suggesting humans were not residing in the cave.
The team’s findings confirm that Cueva de Ardales is a site of immense symbolic value.
The Iberian Peninsula holds more than 30 other caves with similar rock art, making the region a key locality for investigating the history and culture of ancient humans in Europe.