Two hundred years ago, an earthquake revealed the entrance to a vast network of caves in southern Spain; sealed in the dark chambers were works of art made tens of thousands of years ago by early modern humans and Neanderthals, our closest relatives. Today, excavations and scientific analysis have revealed the precise age of many of the cave artworks and the timeline of the system’s use.
The cave is called Cueva de Ardales and contains over 1,000 works of art depicting animals, humans, handprints and abstractions. Although much of the art has been known since the cave was explored in 1821, when the works were created and by whom was unclear.
Now, a team of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists report that Neanderthals and early modern humans were responsible for the artwork, and they’ve collected 50 radiometric dates that indicate the moment of artistic creation– and therefore the time of use of the cave by the two groups of hominids. The team’s results are published today in PLoS One.
“The excavations and studies carried out in Cueva de Ardales confirm that it was the site of symbolic behaviors repeated by various human groups for more than 58,000 years,” said José Ramos-Muñoz, an archaeologist at the University of Cadiz in Spain and the lead author of the study, in an email to Gizmodo. “In the Paleolithic, first Neanderthals and then anatomically modern humans entered the cave to create rock art.”
Most of the cave’s abstract red patterns are located nearby to entry, while Figurative artwork dominates the interior of the cave. The most elaborate works of art are located in the dark area of the cave, which means that no natural light would have reached them in prehistoric times. Charcoal residue in the stalagmite caps near some of the artwork indicates that the stalagmites were used as stationary lamps by ancient painters.
“Cueva de Ardales is one of three cave sites with Neanderthal Ice Age wall paintings in Iberia,” said Gerd-Christian Weniger, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Cologne in Germany and co-author of the report. ‘article. in an email to Gizmodo. “We are faced with the problem that only an extremely small number of Ice Age wall art depictions have been radiometrically dated, and chronological attribution is based on very vague stylistic features.”
“What is very exciting is that, as far as we can tell so far, Ardales was not a typical campsite,” added Weniger. “It was not clear before the excavations.”
There is little evidence of domestic activities in the cave, which the researchers say means humans did not live there. Neanderthals lived at the entrance to the cave, but some artwork is located much deeper into the system.
Whereas they did not find foyer or anything else indicating a camp type colonythe research team discovered the mandible of a 12-year-old male, fragments of teeth, pits and rock chips, animal remains and shells, even although the Mediterranean is more than 25 miles south of the site.
Interestingly, the cave was apparently visited by modern man before 1821 exploration made him widely known. A calcified rope fragment that researchers found on a cave ledge appears to date to the 1600s-which means, when Harvard University was founded, someone was caving in Spain, among the ancient works of art of our ancestors.
Weniger noted that there is still a completely intact cave system above the area the team investigated. So, there is much more to explore and hopefully new arts to discover.