It's not surprising that Cueva de Ardales, one of the richest rock art sites in Europe, has such an abundance of paintings – the inhabitants had plenty of time to practice. The southern Spanish cave was a place of refuge for Neanderthals and modern humans for at least 50,000 years, new evidence reveals.
Previous analysis of paint on the walls of Cueva de Ardales dates it to 65,000 years ago, making it the oldest cave art in the world. An archaeological study of the cave published in PLOS One doesn't go that far back, but reveals charcoal from more than 58,000 years ago. At either time any human inhabitants of Europe were Neanderthals.
It was only about 30,000 years ago that modern humans are thought to have arrived in the area, but the dig also revealed plenty of relics from after that time as well. Besides continuing to paint the walls, modern humans used the cave as a burial site up until the Copper Age around 7,000 years ago.
However, this was not a case of houses taking the place of caves as a shelter from the elements. Instead, the paper's authors, led by Dr Jose Ramos-Muñoz of the University of Cadiz argue what they found demonstrates the 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 provides one of our best opportunities to study prehistoric European culture. Tools found nearby indicate people camped a short walk away near a spring.
Over 1,000 paintings and engravings are known from the walls of Cueva de Ardales. The oldest are mostly abstract red finger marks and hand stencils near the entrance, while the interior has more recent paintings and engravings of animals. The paintings are hard to date reliably, but uranium/thorium analysis of paint flecks has confirmed some were made in Neanderthal times. Seven years of digging near the cave's entrance has revealed numerous objects whose age can be measured in far more detail from the sedimentary layers in which they sit.
Charcoal is abundant at the site, and the dig produced numerous scattered bones and teeth, including the jaw of a 12-year-old boy and pieces of pottery. Other bones reveal the animals that were consumed there, either for food or as ritual sacrifices. Some of the tools found in the cave appear to have been made there.
A landslide sealed the cave's ancient entrance sometime in the last 4,000 years, and it had been thought to be unvisited until its rediscovery in 1821. However, some of the charcoal dates from the 16th or 17th century. A fragment of partially calcified rope of similar age found on a rock ledge confirms humans visited the cave in the few centuries before its existence became public, but probably needed climbing equipment to get around the landslide.
Archaeologists have plenty of reason to return to Cueva de Ardales. The majority of the cave floor has not been dug. “We decided to excavate the entrance because it presented large sectors that were sealed by thick flowstone formations that protected the sediments underneath from later intrusions,” the authors write, but there is plenty more to study. 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 does support the hypothesis humans were absent from southern Iberia at the time.
Although the paper calls the Cueva de Ardales; “The most outstanding cave with Paleolithic rock art in southern Iberia,” it was far from alone. Thirty others are known, in addition to even richer sites in northern Spain.