A millimetric layer of calcium carbonate, crystallized over tens of thousands of years in a cave in Ardales (Málaga), may hide the key that helps solve some of humanity’s great mysteries: how do Neanderthals fit into the evolution of our species? How much did they look like us?
A town proud of the oldest artist in the world
This Wednesday the results of the excavations and analyzes that a Spanish-German team of scientists carried out for seven years in Ardales have been published. The main conclusion is that groups of Neanderthals sought the shelter of the cave 64,000 years ago, that they visited it until 43,000 years ago and that they left their footprints there on purpose: sometimes with their fingers stained with red paint, others by marking their hand with a kind of spray applied by means of a rudimentary canutillo.
The study concludes that the Neanderthal groups left “remains of symbolic practices on the walls and the maintenance of tools” in various areas of the cave. “Our research presents a well-stratified series of more than 50 radiometric dates in the Ardales cave that confirm the antiquity of Paleolithic art for more than 58,000 years,” the authors point out.
The implications are remarkable: those groups of Neanderthals bequeathed to posterity traces of an artistic and symbolic activity, which would imply a capacity for abstraction that until now had been denied them. They were artists before artists sapiens. “Although there is no physical anthropology, the lifestyles indicate that they were Neanderthal societies, which occupied the access to the cave and made the paintings. The synthesis is that Neanderthal societies were not as crude or simple as we think”, summarizes José Ramos Muñoz, professor of Prehistory at the Cadiz Universityand co-author of the work.
The manipulation of ocher as ancillary evidence
The study, titled Nature and chronology of human occupation in the lower galleries of the Cueva de Ardales and published by the scientific journal PlosOne, provides 40 carbon-14 dates and another 12 dates using uranium-thorium, a radiometric technique that allows the date of inorganic traces to be estimated with great precision. When crossed, the dates yield coincident results: the crust deposited by the water on the paintings of the stalactites and stalagmites of the cave is 64,000 years old. This confirms what was advanced in 2018 with great commotion in the scientific community: some of the prefigurative paintings in the cave are over 45,000 years old.
“The crust that we break to access clayey and human-used sediments allows us to enter that chapter with one date, and when we reach the base we leave with another,” illustrates Pedro Cantalejo, co-author of the study. “There is no longer any doubt, as in 2018, that there were graphic activities from more than 45,000 years ago. Now we have infinity of dates with more than 45,000 years”.
The two authors highlight the “stratigraphic rigor” with which the study has been carried out, completed with traditional archeology techniques that confirm what the dating indicates. In addition to tools and carved stones, 40 fragments of ocher, a ferrous mineral, have been documented in the levels corresponding to the Middle Palaeolithic (and, therefore, to the Neanderthals). “This indicates that they manipulated iron oxide for the paints,” says Ramos.
With this material, they left for posterity more than a thousand pictorial motifs: points, lines, stains and traces located, above all, in the narrow passages. “What we hypothesize is that they were opening a path into the cave,” says Ramos.
A footprint for the future
The study demonstrates the occupation and presence of Neanderthal human groups in a first phase, which runs between 65,000 and 43,000 years ago. Later, a “hiatus” occurs, until 36,000 years ago the sapiens sapiens (the homo anatomically modern) occupied it again until the beginning of the Holocene climatic change, 9,000 years ago.
Both groups used the entrance as a refuge, visited the darkest part of the gallery (which runs for 1.7 kilometres) and used three areas as a workshop or logistical stop from which to prepare lighting or graphic material. The fact that they had such a similar “action protocol” suggests that Neanderthals and Sapiens had a more similar mind than is believed. “Neanderthals seem silly to us, but they did the same thing, in the same places and with the same care,” says Cantalejo.
In his opinion, everything indicates that they were aware of themselves and wanted to leave a legacy for whoever came after them. “Why explore a cave that is of no use to you? To show that they visited her, they left us a souvenir. They thought about the future leaving indelible marks. We thought they were made just to survive, and maybe they had a sense of identity.” Though gaining supporters in the scientific communitythis hypothesis is still groundbreaking, since it breaks with the axiom that only the homo anatomically modern he was able to make art and voluntarily leave a mark.
In the case of Ardales, the graphic repertoire is vast. Includes full-bodied animals to the female pubis, the work of sapiens sapiens, but the catalog of 1010 motifs is basically made up of non-figurative elements, whose antiquity is now confirmed. “This kind of ugly art hasn’t been given due attention: three little dots, blowing, a red spot… Compared to the study of a horse and some deer, it didn’t wear clothes,” laments Cantalejo. Henri Breuil called these paintings “noise”. Ardales has been a pioneer in valuing these red marks.
The Malaga “border” between the sapiens sapiens and the neanderthal
The Ardales cave opened with the 1821 earthquake and quickly became a tourist spot thanks to the shine of its calcite. In the middle of the 20th century it fell into oblivion, until in 1985 it reopened with many limitations. The objective has always been to prevent the entry of light, capable of causing “green evil” and deteriorating the cave art, which is wonderfully preserved here.
In the study, directed by Ramos Muñoz and Gerd-Christian Wenige (University of Cologne), 40 researchers from the universities of Cádiz, Granada, Córdoba and Almería, the Institute of Prehistoric Archeology of Erlangen or the Ulm Museum have participated. “It is a site that transcended us at a technical, economic, personal and research level and we wanted to open it to everyone to make it a reference”, admits Cantalejo, who has been director of Heritage and main curator of the space since its reopening.
Now, the findings reposition the cavity as a fundamental enclave for prehistoric research, a few weeks after the existence of an open-air site with remains of paintings and cave art from the Paleolithic between 30,000 and 60,000 years old in Antequera was revealed. at 50 kilometers. “In Malaga there must be an important key to that chronological territory, the border between sapiens sapiens and Neanderthals”, values Cantalejo.
Recently retired, he has just put together some of the pieces that he has spent decades putting together to better understand who used the Ardales cave: the Neanderthals, those hominids who were probably less stupid than previously believed.