Cave in Malaga has oldest Neanderthals rock paintings in the world

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ARDALES – A series of red lines in a large stalagmite in the Ardales Cave in southern Spain appears to have been painted by Neanderthals at least 64,800 years ago. This came to light after a meticulous analysis by researchers from the University of Barcelona.

The results of the research into the rock art in Ardales – famous for the Caminito del Rey – have been published in the scientific journal PNAS.  Furthermore, according to the researchers, the drawings are Neanderthal. This is because they are evidenced by the fact ancestors of modern humans did not reach the Iberian Peninsula until many millennia later. 

65,000 years ago

The analysed paintings were made about 65,000 years ago in the so-called Chamber of the Stars. And this is where several stalagmite columns are marked with ochre. Researchers conclude the pigment used is an ochre (mainly iron oxide). It is not found anywhere else in the cave in the province of Malaga. Therefore, it must have come from outside. 

Researchers rule out anything other than intentional human action. “The pigment is a hematite [iron oxide mineral] not found in the cave. It was contributed by humans.” 

With regard to the claim of natural or non-natural origin, the researchers confirmed it had been applied to the stone. “No spot of the same calcite can be removed by natural processes resulting from the precipitation of the crystals or from accumulations due to biological (microbial) organisms) or geological (flood) activity …”. 

Oldest paintings of Neanderthals 

This confirms these are the oldest paintings, alongside those of La Pasiega (Cantabria), made in a cave made by Neanderthals. However, there are some stones with reddish lines that the sapiens drew in South Africa 73,000 years ago. 

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But there is another discovery that suggests many things to researchers. The oldest traces in the cave of Ardales are from about 65,000 years ago. However, there are other drawings on other columns of the same stalagmite that are more recent from about 20,000 years ago. But always by Neanderthals. 

Symbolic meaning

“Our interpretation is that the cave itself, and this dome, in particular, had a symbolic meaning. This could be either ritual, mythological, or something else. And that this was highlighted/underlined by the spreading of the red pigment over it,” says Zilhao, researcher and co-author of the study. 

The repetition of the paintings is what strikes the prehistorian of the Complutense University of Madrid Marcos García Diez most. He was not involved in the investigation but did investigate Ardales Cave in depth. 

Millennia of tradition

“It means there was a tradition passed down orally over millennia about the cave’s decorative or symbolic value,” he says. As with other more recent artistic expressions, it is possible that “the image has no function or meaning until it is in place. Function is not given by the image, but by the place,” he adds. And this, which had already been observed in sapiens, “is the first time it has been observed in Neanderthals,” adds García Diez. 

“Much remains to be explored before rejecting the alternative hypothesis. Which is the authors were sapiens who arrived via the Strait of Gibraltar much earlier and not Neanderthals”. 

This research on Ardales Cave is part of a larger project co-led by José Ramos Muñoz (University of Cádiz) and Gerd C. Weniger (Neanderthal Museum, Germany). It is funded by the Ministry of Economy, Industry, and Competitiveness. 

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