A cave famous for its paintings has been occupied by humans for 50,000 years

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It’s no surprise that Cueva de Ardales, one of the richest rock art sites in Europe, has such an abundance of paintings – the locals had plenty of time to practice. The cave in southern Spain has been a place of refuge for Neanderthals and modern humans for at least 50,000 years, according to new evidence.

Previous analysis of the painting on the walls of Cueva de Ardales dates it to 65,000 years ago, making it the oldest rock art in the world. An archaeological study of the cave published in PLOS One does not date back that far, but reveals coal dating back over 58,000 years. In each era, all the human inhabitants of Europe were Neanderthals.

Modern humans are thought to have arrived in the area only around 30,000 years ago, but excavations have also revealed many relics from later than this time. In addition to continuing to paint the walls, modern humans used the cave as a burial ground until the Copper Age, around 7,000 years ago.

However, these were not houses taking the place of caves as shelter from the elements. Instead, the paper’s authors, led by Dr. Jose Ramos-Muñoz of the University of Cádiz, argue that what they found demonstrates that Cueva de Ardales “was not a campsite, but was mainly visited to carry out non-domestic tasks, such as the production of rock art or the burial of the dead.

As such it had great symbolic value and offers one of our best opportunities to study prehistoric European culture. Tools found nearby indicate that people camped a few feet away near a spring.

The excavation site in the entrance area of ​​the Cueva de Ardales with the older works of art marked. Image Credit: Ramos-Munoz et al/PLOS One

More than 1,000 paintings and engravings are known from the walls of Cueva de Ardales. The older ones are mostly abstract red fingerprints and hand stencils near the entrance, while the interior features more recent paintings and animal prints. The paintings are difficult to date reliably, but uranium/thorium analysis of paint spots has confirmed that some were made in Neanderthal times. Seven years of excavations near the entrance to the cave have revealed numerous objects whose age can be measured in much greater detail from the sedimentary layers in which they are found.

Charcoal is abundant at the site, and excavations have produced many scattered bones and teeth, including the jawbone of a 12-year-old boy and pottery pieces. Other bones reveal the animals that were eaten there, either for food or as ritual sacrifices. Some of the tools found in the cave appear to have been made there.

Special finds from layer 2, zone 5. a) broken point of a point from the Gravette cultural lineage b) median fragment of a marginal bladelet with reverse retouch; c) perforated red deer canine; b) medial fragment of a marginal bladelet with reverse retouch; c) perforated red deer canine. Image Credit: Ramos-Munoz et al/PLOS One

A landslide sealed the cave’s ancient entrance for the past 4,000 years, and it was thought not to be visited until it was rediscovered in 1821. However, some of the charcoal dates to the 16th or 17th century. A fragment of partially calcified rope of similar age found on a rocky ledge confirms that humans visited the cave centuries before its existence became public knowledge, but likely needed climbing gear to get around the cave. landslide.

This 300 to 500 year old piece of rope has been gradually overwhelmed by lava growth around it. Image Credit: Ramos-Munoz et al/PLOS One

Archaeologists have many reasons to return to Cueva de Ardales. The majority of the floor of the cave has not been dug. “We decided to excavate the entrance because it had large areas sealed by thick lava formations that protected the sediments below from further intrusion,” the authors write, but much remains to be investigated. This may reveal whether an apparent 7,000 year gap, where no signs of human presence were found from 43,000 to 36,000, really supports the hypothesis that humans were absent from the southern Iberian Peninsula at the time. .

Although the newspaper calls the Cueva de Ardales; “The most remarkable cave with Paleolithic rock art in the southern Iberian Peninsula”, it was far from the only one. About thirty others are known, in addition to even richer sites in northern Spain.

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