In 1821, an earthquake rocked southern Spain and, in the process, exposed the entrance to Cueva de Ardales, a previously hidden cave. Inside, more than 1,000 engravings and red paintings dotted its walls, ceilings, ground rocks and other natural features.
Archaeologists have long suspected that the cave’s artwork was very old, but now, they believe they have a much clearer picture of exactly when—and who—created it. Neanderthals and, later, more modern humans left their artistic mark on the cave starting around 58,000 years ago, according to a new paper published this week in the journal PLOS One.
An international team of archaeologists explored Cueva de Ardales from 2011 to 2018, then used radiocarbon and uranium-thorium dating techniques to understand the cave’s history.
They believe Neanderthals first entered the cave during the Middle Paleolithic, or the middle part of the Stone Age, drawing on the walls and maintaining their tools inside. After that, human visits to Cueva de Ardales ebbed and flowed all the way through to the late Neolithic/Chalcolithic period—the latter part of the Stone Age and the Copper Age—about 5,500 years ago,
Based on items archaeologists found within the cave, they also suspect it was used solely to create art and bury the dead—not as a shelter. This suggests that the site was highly symbolic to its visitors.
“What is very exciting is that, as far as we can tell so far, Ardales was not a classic camp site,” Gerd-Christian Weniger, an archaeologist at the University of Cologne and one of the paper’s authors, tells Gizmodo’s Isaac Schultz. “That was not clear before the excavations.”
Though they didn’t find any fireplaces or other evidence to suggest domestic occupation of the cavern, researchers did document a deer tooth, a wildcat bone, pieces of ocher, some tools and the jaw of a 12-year-old boy, among other artifacts. They also found a rope fragment and charcoal dating back to the late 16th or early 17th century, which suggests that someone rappelled into the cave a few hundred years before the 1821 earthquake bared its entrance.
Natural light could not reach the cave’s innermost depths, so its prehistoric artists had to improvise to see what they were drawing. Researchers found charcoal residue in the caps of stalagmites near some artworks, suggesting the painters created makeshift lamps to illuminate their work area.
After the 19th-century earthquake, curious tourists wandered around inside Cueva de Ardales, located in Málaga, Spain, about 30 miles from the Mediterranean coast. But it took nearly 100 years for researchers to realize the value of its archaeological riches. In 1918, French archaeologist Henri Breuil recognized that the artwork inside the cave was very old, likely dating to the Paleolithic period. Despite this, archaeologists paid little attention to Cueva de Ardales until around 1990, when researchers took a full inventory of all the rock art in the cave.
Though this latest study shines more light on the mysterious cavern, there’s still an entire section that researchers have yet to investigate, per Gizmodo. Hopefully, there’s more art—and more insights into prehistoric humans, their ancestors and their creativity—to come.