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Ardales Cave: Red Ochre Lines

Neanderthal art: dated 63,000 BC
World's oldest cave painting

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Excavation work at the entrance of Ardales Cave, Málaga, Spain
Excavation work at the entrance area of Ardales Cave, where the largest collection of abstract red ochre paintings were found. Image by José Ramos Muñoz, Pedro Cantalejo, Gerd-Christian Weniger et al (PLOS ONE: The nature and chronology of human occupation at the Galerías Bajas, from Cueva de Ardales, Malaga, Spain). (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ardales Cave: Summary

The Ardales Cave is a Stone Age underground cave system situated in the extreme west of the Serrezuela, in the province of Málaga.

It sits about 550 metres altitude above sea level, has a geological age of about 2.5 million years and has remained relatively undisturbed for the past 30,000 years.

It is one of the oldest paleolithic caves on the Iberian Peninsula, and while it was known in the 19th century, it wasn't properly studied until 1918, when the French archaeologist Henry Breuil (1877-1961) conducted a thorough examination of its interior.

The cave layout extends for about one and a half kilometres and includes five underground galleries of cave paintings and rock engravings, along with underground pools and several formations of stalactites and stalagmites.

The galleries include: the Gran Sala (Great Room), the Sala del Lago (Lake Room), the Galería del Espolón (Gallery of the Spur), the Galería de los Grabado (Gallery of the Engravings) and the Sala de las Manos (Room of the Hands).

In 1998, the Ardales Cave was declared a World Heritage Site.

Why is Ardales Cave Important?

Ardales Cave provides important new insights into the artistic behaviours of Neanderthals during the era of paleolithic art in Spain.

Previously, these humans were thought to be uncultured, and incapable of art and symbolic behaviour.

In fact, until recently, little cave art had been discovered in Europe that predated the arrival of modern humans, who arrived from Africa around 54,000 BC.

Archaeologists thus assumed that all prehistoric art in Europe was created by Cro-Magnons (modern humans).

But a new investigation shows that primitive artworks - lines of red ochre pigment - found on stalactites in the Ardales Cave, date to at least 63,000 BC, placing them among the oldest art in Europe.

Since modern humans did not arrive in Europe for at least another 10,000 years, the artworks in the Ardales Cave must have been created by Neanderthals.

This conclusion is reinforced by similar data from other Spanish Caves, including the Cave of La Pasiega (Cantabria) and the Cave of Maltravieso (Extremadura), as well as the Divje Babe Flute (Slovenia) - the world's first known musical instrument.

Note also the Bruniquel Cave constructions made by Neanderthals around 175,000 BC.

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What Type of Prehistoric Art Does Ardales Cave Contain?

The Cave of Ardales in the province of Malaga, is unusually rich in paleolithic art.

Its walls are covered with more than 1,000 cave paintings - including red and black images of animals, abstract signs, as well as hand stencils, and handprints.

The most imposing animal figure is the Gran Cierva en Negro (Great Black Deer). This is depicted in black with a red blot over its heart.

The paintings are done in a variety of five different colours, and there are eight distinct types of rock carvings.

In addition, there are a series of rudimentary red ochre lines, or stains, on a group of cauliflower-like stalactites. The red colour is thought to be the natural result of iron compounds being deposited by water percolation.

Archaeologists suspected that the rudimentary red markings were the oldest parietal art in the cave, but none of them had actually been properly examined to find out if they were naturally occurring or man-made.

A laboratory program was therefore set up to establish how and when the ochre markings arrived in the cave, using an electron microscope to check their provenance, and uranium-thorium dating of carbonate crusts overlying the pigments, to check their age.

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Who Created the Ardales Cave Art and How Old Is It?

The findings of the study (D.L. Hoffmann et al. 2018) show the ochre pigment was brought into the cave from elsewhere, and that it was probably splattered or blown onto the rock surface.

By fixing the age of these red ochre markings at around 63,000 BC, the study puts them among the oldest known cave 'paintings' in the world, even if they are primitive works.

The study also found that the red ochre pigment had been applied at several different points in time over a period of at least 10,000 years.

This shows that Neanderthals kept returning to the cave to paint the stalactites over and over. This raises the likelihood that Homo neanderthalensis led a more complex life than previously imagined, and challenges long-held assumptions about the nature and extent of their cognitive abilities.

The fact that similar results were obtained from three caves 700 kilometres apart (Ardales, La Pasiega and Maltravieso), proves that Neanderthal artistic behaviour was a widespread tradition.

For more about important finds of Neanderthal art, see: Krapina Eagle Jewellery (130,000 BC) and Cave of Los Aviones Jewellery (113,000 BC).

For a more controversial site of Neanderthal art, see: Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar.

References

D.L. Hoffmann et al. 2018. U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art. Science 359 (6378): 912-915.

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