Just How Old Are the Cave Paintings in Spain’s Cova Dones?

With help from a now-extinct bear, archaeologists have unlocked the mysteries of Spain’s Cova Dones

a man holding a flashlight inside a cave
Ruiz-Redondo examines a partially flooded chamber of Cova Dones.  A Ruiz-Redondo/V Barciela/X Martorell

Discovering any collection of Paleolithic art is rare, says Aitor Ruiz-Redondo, an archaeologist and senior lecturer at the University of Zaragoza in Spain: Only about 400 such sites have been found worldwide. But to come upon more than 100 prehistoric motifs—created over 24,000 years ago using unorthodox methods and preserved in a cave by a stroke of chemical luck—is simply extraordinary.

Cova Dones, the cave in question, lies close to Spain’s eastern coast in Valencia, whereas most of the country’s ancient art—including the famous prehistoric cave paintings of Altamira—is in northern Spain. First explored by Ruiz-Redondo and colleagues in 2021, Cova Dones is home to at least 110 paintings, drawings and engravings. Many of the motifs depict animals: female red deer, wild horses and now-extinct oxen.

Unlike other Paleolithic paintings, typically made with ocher or manganese, most of Cova Dones’ paintings were done in clay—and conserved by chemistry.

an etching of a horse on a cave wall
A partly faded clay painting of a horse’s head. A Ruiz-Redondo/V Barciela/X Martorell

Cova Dones is a karstic cave, Ruiz-Redondo says, meaning its walls and standing water are rich in calcium carbonate, a natural paint preservative. Early humans likely scooped red clay from the cave’s floor and walls, mixing it with water at their feet. They were—inadvertently or not—creating a minerally reinforced paint. Then, thousands of years of water trickling into the cave deposited a layer of calcium carbonate over their work, sealing it to the wall for Ruiz-Redondo to find so many centuries later.

Determining the age of cave art is delicate work. Ruiz-Redondo and his team are awaiting a full laboratory analysis of Cova Dones’ motifs—including radiometric dating of their crusty mineral coverings—but until then, a couple of logical approaches provide some clarity. First, some of the motifs are drawn in a style that’s typical of a period about 21,000 to 40,000 years ago, according to dating at other Paleolithic sites, Ruiz-Redondo says. Second, one of the drawings was defaced in a telling way: “It was covered by a bear scratch,” Ruiz-Redondo says. The mark was made by a cave bear, an animal that went extinct 24,000 years ago, and its placement allows the team to determine that the motif predates the bear’s extinction.

“Archaeology has always had a romantic part,” Ruiz-Redondo says—a “sense of discovery. Especially with the paintings—nobody has seen this horse in thousands and thousands and thousands of years.” Until now.

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This article is a selection from the January/February 2024 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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