The origin and date of the appearance of prehistoric cave art continues to be debated. Among the sites discussed, the Spanish cave of Ardales where a stalagmitic flow is colored red in places: the coloring would date almost 65,000 years¹ but part of the scientific community had until then attributed it to a natural flow of iron oxide. This hypothesis has nevertheless just been swept away by the results of an international team involving a CNRS² researcher.. By analyzing samples of red residues collected on the stalagmite and comparing them with deposits rich in iron oxides present in the cave, the scientists concluded that ocher-based pigment was indeed applied to the stalagmites and especially that this pigment was probably brought into the cave from an outside source. This structure was therefore intentionally painted by Neanderthals (modern humans did not yet live on the European continent at that time).
In addition, variations in composition between the various samples of paint taken, corresponding to chronological differences, sometimes of several thousand years were noted: many generations of Neanderthals would therefore have visited the cave and marked with red ocher the draperies of this great stalagmitic flow. This testifies to an interest in returning to the cave and symbolically marking a place, as well as a transmission of this tradition between generations. This work is published in PNAS on August 2, 2021.
- By way of comparison, the oldest paintings in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave are dated to around -37,000 years old, and those in the Lascaux cave to -21,000 years old.
- Working at the laboratories “From Prehistory to the Present: Culture, Environment and Anthropology” (CNRS / University of Bordeaux / Ministry of Culture). The project was funded by the Labex Archaeological Sciences of Bordeaux, the large Human Past research project and the Talents program of the University of Bordeaux.
Featured image: Stalagmitic flow in the Sala de las Estrellas of the Ardales cave (Malaga, Andalusia) with the traces of red pigment analyzed in the article.
© Joao Zilhao , ICREA
The symbolic role of the underground world among Middle Palaeolithic Neanderthals. Africa Pitarch Martí, João Zilhão, Francesco d’Errico, Pedro Cantalejo-Duarte, Salvador Domínguez-Bella, Josep M. Fullola, Gerd C. Weniger and José Ramos-Muñoz. PNAS , August 2, 2021. https://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.2021495118
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