Study confirms ancient cave art in southern Spain was created by Neanderthals

Neanderthals, long perceived to have been unsophisticated and brutish, really did paint stalagmites in a Spanish cave more than 60,000 years ago, according to a study published on Monday.

ardales cave art neanderthal spain
Photo: Joao Zilhao/ICREA/AFP

The issue had roiled the paleoarchaeology community ever since the publication of a 2018 paper attributing red ocher pigment found on the stalagmitic dome of Cueva de Ardales (Malaga province) to our extinct “cousin” species.

The dating suggested the art was at least 64,800 years old, made at a time when modern humans did not inhabit the continent.

But the finding was contentious, and “a scientific article said that perhaps these pigments were a natural thing,” a result of iron oxide flow, Francesco d’Errico, co-author of a new paper in the journal PNAS told AFP.

A new analysis revealed the composition and placement of the pigments were not consistent with natural processes — instead, the pigments were applied through splattering and blowing.


What’s more, their texture did not match natural samples taken from the caves, suggesting the pigments came from an external source.

More detailed dating showed that the pigments were applied at different points in time, separated by more than ten thousand years.This “supports the hypothesis that the Neanderthals came on several occasions, over several thousand years, to mark the cave with pigments,” said d’Errico, of the University of Bordeaux.

It is difficult to compare the Neanderthal “art” to wall paintings made by prehistoric modern humans, such as those found in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave of France, more 30,000 years old.

But the new finding adds to increasing evidence that Neanderthals, whose lineage went extinct around 40,000 years ago, were not the boorish relatives of Homo sapiens they were long portrayed to be.

The cave-paintings found in three caves in Spain, one of them in Ardales, are throught to have been created between 43,000 and 65,000 years ago, 20,000 years before modern humans arrived in Europe. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

The team wrote that the pigments are not “art” in the narrow sense of the word “but rather the result of graphic behaviors intent on perpetuating the symbolic significance of a space.”

The cave formations “played a fundamental role in the symbolic systems of some Neanderthal communities,” though what those symbols meant remains a mystery for now.

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Fisherman finds priceless medieval religious icon on Spanish riverbed

A fisherman has stumbled across a medieval religious treasure while fishing in shallow waters in a river near the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela.

Fisherman finds priceless medieval religious icon on Spanish riverbed
The statue is thought to date from the 14th Century. Photo: Apatrigal

Fernando Brey discovered the moss covered statue earlier this month while fly fishing in the river Sar and reported the find to local cultural heritage authorities.

“I came across what looked like a large stone and half climbed it to launch the fly,” he told La Voz de Galicia adding that although it was covered with moss, it immediately stood out from the other rocks.

“It occurred to me that it was a square-ish stone which is unusual to find in a river and I looked down at the ripples that formed around it and saw the shape of a head and thought ‘this is something’,” he said.

He took some photos and sent them to Ana Paula Castor from Apatrigal, a cultural heritage association in Galicia and she reported the find to Galicia’s Cultural Ministry.

Initial analysis appears to suggest it is a granite statue of a Virgin in the Gothic style, possibly dating from the 14th Century.

It may be the lost icon of the Virgin of the Concha that was once adorned a chapel that served as a forgotten pilgrimage site in Conxo, close to where the statue was found.

The statue which weighs around 150 kg appears to have two angels on the shoulders of the main figure and a garland of flowers at its feet.

On Monday archaeologists from Santiago’s Pilgrimage Museum visited the site and oversaw the removal of the piece from the riverbed and its transferral to the museum workshop where it can be cleaned and properly examined.

“It's not every day that you witness the recovery of an asset of such great heritage value as this Virgin statue discovered in the river Sar as it passes through Conxo,” said Roman Rodriguez from the regional culture secretary, in a tweet on Monday.