Maltravieso Cave

Hand stencils dated 64,700 BC,
Cave art by Iberian Neanderthals

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Entrance to Maltravieso Cave, noted for its Middle Paleolithic Neanderthal hand stencils
Entrance to the Cave of Maltravieso. The site and its collection of parietal art are located in Spain's southwest, far from the traditional zone of Franco-Cantabrian art along the northern coastline. Image by Mario modesto. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Cave of Maltravieso: Summary

The Cave of Maltravieso is an important site of prehistoric art dating back to the Middle Paleolithic period.

Its importance stems from a recent investigation of its cave painting - namely, its hand stencils - which found that they were created around 64,700 BC. This makes them the oldest art of its type, after the Quesang Handprints (167,000 BC) in Tibet.

The discovery is also significant because it means the handprints were made by Neanderthals, since modern man did not arrive in Europe for another 20,000 years, which has important implications for Neanderthal cognitive capabilities.

The dating of Maltravieso's hand stencils was part of a wider investigation embracing Altamira Cave, the La Pasiega Cave in Cantabria and the Ardales Cave near Malaga, which also revealed Neanderthal involvement.

Paleolithic Spain

Other important paleolithic caves in Spain include: La Pileta, in Málaga, Cova Dones near Valencia, El Castillo Cave and Las Chimeneas in Puente Viesgo, La Peña de Candamo near San Román, and Tito Bustillo (34,000 BC) in Ribadesella.

The Basque region of Spain also has several important sites dating to the Upper Paleolithic.

They include: Aitzbitarte caves (25,000 BC), Altxerri Cave (37,000 BC), Atxurra Cave (12,500 BC), Ekain Cave (12,000 BC), and Santimamiñe Cave (12,000 BC).

Location & Discovery

The Cave of Maltravieso is located within the city of Cáceres, in western Spain's Extremadura region.

It was discovered in 1951, when an explosion at a limestone quarry revealed a deep cavity in the rock.

Inside were human skulls, animal bones, tools and other artifacts, which are now part of a permanent exhibition at the Museum of Cáceres.

The discovery of skulls in the cave drew the attention of the Catalan archaeologist Carlos Callejo Serrano (1911-93), who discovered the site's famous cave paintings.

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Maltravieso Cave Art

The cave art at Maltravieso includes cave paintings of animals, and a number of abstract signs, but it's the 71 hand stencils that steal the show.

Outlined in red ochre pigment, they were carefully documented by researchers in the 1990s, using ultraviolet photography.

You can see dozens of hands, some of which are missing their little fingers, reaching out to you from tens of thousands of years ago.

Anthropologists still debate the meaning of these hand markings, and the true extent of their 'mutilations', but for the moment they remain one of the most important artistic finds of Neanderthal culture in the region of Franco-Cantabrian art.

For similar collections of hand stencils, see the famous Gargas Cave in southern France, and Cueva de las Manos in Argentina.

How Old are the Hand Stencils at the Cave of Maltravieso?

The hand stencils were investigated in 2018, by researchers from the University of Southampton and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Using state-of-the-art uranium-thorium dating methods, researchers tested samples taken from the film of carbonate overlying the red pigment of one hand stencil, and obtained a date of 64,700 BC.

In addition, excavations have uncovered evidence of human occupation in the cave dating back to 350,000 BC, so there may be more paleolithic art in the depths of the cave, waiting to be found.

Joint lead author of the research team Dr Chris Standish, said: "The paintings we dated are, by far, the oldest known parietal art in the world...This is an incredibly exciting discovery which suggests Neanderthals were much more sophisticated than is popularly believed."

Were Neanderthals Artistic?

Yes, it certainly seems so. From the speleothem constructions at Bruniquel Cave (175,000 BC) to the decorative necklaces seen at the Krapina site (130,000) and the Los Aviones Cave, and now the handprints in Spain, it's seems H. Neanderthalensis had the ability to think symbolically, just like modern H. sapiens.

One should note however, that not all archaeologists agree about Neanderthal cognitive capabilities. Not least because figurative cave painting - a much more demanding form of rock art - only began with modern humans, around 40,000 BC.

The Cave of Maltravieso Interpretation Centre which opened next to the cave in 1999, contains a permanent exhibition that explains the history of the cave and its paintings.

To see how the Maltravieso Cave handprints fit into the evolution of paleoart, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline (from 540,000 BC).


(1) "U-Th dating of carbonate crusts reveals Neandertal origin of Iberian cave art". D. L. Hoffmann; C. D. Standish; M. García-Diez; P. B. Pettitt; J. A. Milton; J. Zilhão; J. J. Alcolea-González; P. Cantalejo-Duarte; H. Collado; R. de Balbín; M. Lorblanchet; J. Ramos-Muñoz; G.-Ch. Weniger; A. W. G. Pike (2018). Science. 359 (6378): 912–915.
(2) "So Neanderthals made abstract art? This astounding discovery humbles every human." Jonathan Jones. Guardian. London. Feb 23, 2018.

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