Cave art depictions of seven horses from the palaeolithic era are among animals adorning the walls of an important archaeological site in Spain.
Archaeologists say the cave art site is arguably the most important found on the Eastern Iberian Coast in Europe.
More than 110 ancient paintings and engravings, thought to be at least 24,000 years old, have been found in a 500 metre-long cave in Cova Dones or Cueva Dones – a site located in Millares near Valencia.
The cave site is well-known by locals and often visited by hikers and explorers, but the existence of palaeolithic paintings was unnoticed until researchers made the exciting discovery in June 2021.
Findings of a study into the cave art, which highlights its significance, have been published in the journal Antiquity.
“When we saw the first painted auroch [an extinct wild bull], we immediately acknowledged it was important,” said Dr Aitor Ruiz-Redondo, a senior lecturer in prehistory at the University of Zaragoza in Spain.
“Although Spain is the country with the largest number of palaeolithic cave art sites, most of them are concentrated in northern Spain. Eastern Iberia is an area where few of these sites have been documented so far,” said Ruiz-Redondo, who is also a research affiliate at the University of Southampton in England.
“However, the actual ‘shock’ of realising its significance came long after the first discovery. Once we began the proper systematic survey we realised we were facing a major cave art site, like the ones that can be found elsewhere in Cantabrian Spain, southern France or Andalusia, but that totally lack in this territory.”
The research team of Ruiz-Redondo, Dr Virginia Barciela-González, a senior lecturer in prehistory at the University of Alicante in Spain, and Dr Ximo Martorell-Briz, a research affiliate at the University of Alicante, have painstakingly documented more than 100 “motifs”, or designs, at Cova Dones so far.
The large number of motifs and the variety of techniques involved in their creation make the cave the most important palaeolithic cave art site on the eastern Mediterranean coast of the Iberian Peninsula.
It is probably the Palaeolithic cave with the greatest number of motifs discovered in Europe since Atxurra, in Spain, in 2015.
The study highlights there are at least 19 confirmed animal representations, including hinds, horses, aurochs, and deer. Unusually, the majority of the paintings have been made using clay.
Ruiz-Redondo explains: “Animals and signs were depicted simply by dragging the fingers and palms covered with clay on the walls. The humid environment of the cave did the rest: the ‘paintings’ dried quite slowly, preventing parts of the clay from falling down rapidly, while other parts were covered by calcite layers, which preserved them until today.”
Although painting in clay is known in palaeolithic art, examples of its usage (or preservation) are scarce. In Cueva Dones, however, it is the main technique.
The researchers say their investigations are at an early stage and there are still many areas to survey and panels to document – so they are likely to reveal more art in the coming years.
The motifs identified so far in the main area, about 400 metres from the cave entrance, including at least 19 zoomorphic representations, seven horses, seven female red deer, two aurochs, a stag, and two indeterminate animals.
The rest of the art consists of conventional signs (rectangles, meanders), several panels of ‘macaroni’ (‘flutings’ made with either fingers or tools dragged across a soft surface), isolated lines, and poorly preserved unidentified paintings.
The researchers said the style of the aurochs and horses was able to be used to assess the paintings’ age.
Stylistic analysis of the figures points to a pre-Magdalenian age (more than 20,000 years old) and, considering the date for the extinction of the cave bear, they estimate that at least part of the rock art must be more than 24,000 years old.
Ruiz-Redondo, A., Barciela, V., & Martorell, X. (2023). Cova Dones: A major Palaeolithic cave art site in eastern Iberia. Antiquity, 1-5. doi:10.15184/aqy.2023.133
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