Cave of Los Aviones

Sea shell necklace jewellery
By Iberian Neanderthals: 113,000 BC

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Cave of Los Aviones, a Mousterian Neanderthal site in Spain, best known for its early jewellery
The Neanderthal Cave of Los Aviones has yielded numerous painted and perforated marine shells, along with red and yellow ochre pigments, dating to 113,000 BC. Image by P4K1T0. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cave Art at Los Aviones

The Cave of Los Aviones (Cueva de los Aviones) (or "Cave of the Aircraft") is a shallow limestone rock shelter (abri), located near the Faro de Navidad, at the western entrance to the harbour of Cartagena, in southeastern Spain.

The cave is an important site of prehistoric art, which dates back to the Middle Paleolithic era (300,000-45,000 BC).

In 2010, under the cave's overhanging cliff face, researchers found a cache of perforated sea shells decorated with red and yellow ochre paint pigments, which were dated to at least 113,000 BC.

The perforations in the shells were found to be drilled holes, suggesting they were worn by the cave's occupants as jewellery.

The excavations also yielded shell containers containing residues of pigment mixtures, as well as numerous bones, animal teeth, Mousterian stone tools and other artifacts.

Note: The Mousterian tool industry, named after the type-site of Le Moustier in the French Dordogne, witnessed the emergence, dominance and fall of Homo neanderthalensis in Europe.

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Why is the Cave of Los Aviones Important?

The Cueva de los Aviones is important for two reasons. First, its sea shell jewellery is among the oldest decorative art in the world - at least 40,000 years older than anything yet discovered, except for the eagle claw adornments at the Krapina Neanderthal cave in Croatia.

Second, since the only humans in Spain at the time were Neanderthals, it proves that H. neanderthalensis was capable of producing decorative art just like Homo sapiens - the so-called 'modern man'. (Animal paintings are a different story.)

How Old is Los Aviones Cave Art?

The Stone Age art found at Los Aviones was dated indirectly by subjecting the overlying flowstone to Uranium–thorium dating (U-Th). (Note: flowstone is the sheetlike calcite deposit formed by water flowing over surfaces.)

The U-Th tests dated the shells and pigments to between 113,000 and 118,000 BC, placing them among the oldest art in history.

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Who Made the Los Aviones Cave Jewellery?

Answer: Neanderthals. They were the only human species living in Europe at the time.

Only they could have crafted the necklaces, since Homo sapiens didn't arrive in Europe until about 45,000 BC.

The seashell jewellery at Los Aviones shows quite clearly that Neanderthals were the cognitive equals of Homo sapiens.

For other examples of shell jewellery made by Neanderthals, see Fumane Cave (45,600 BC).

More Examples of Neanderthal Art

How artistic were Neanderthals? Up until the 1950s, scientists saw Homo neanderthalensis as a knuckle-dragging brute - strong and capable, but stupid.

Since then, archaeological evidence has shown Neanderthal culture to be considerably more complex than previously thought.

Neanderthals crafted sophisticated stone tools, used medicinal plants, cared for their sick, and buried their dead with care.

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Neanderthals also made art.

All this suggests that Neanderthals were as culturally advanced as any of their contemporaries, and cognitively indistinguishable from modern humans. For more, please see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).


(1) Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals 115,000 years ago. Dirk L. Hoffmann, Diego E. Angelucci, Valentín Villaverde, Josefina Zapata, and João Zilhão. Science Advances 22 Feb 2018: Vol. 4, no. 2, eaar5255.

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