Study: Spain’s Cueva de Ardales Was Used by Ancient Humans for Over 50,000 years

Cueva de Ardales is a hugely important Paleolithic site in Malaga, Spain, owing to its rich inventory of rock art. According to new research, Neanderthals entered this cave in the Middle Paleolithic, over 65,000 years ago and left traces of symbolic practices on the cave walls; thereafter the cave was repeatedly visited by Homo sapiens all the way to the Late Neolithic/Chalcolithic period.

Excavation area in Cueva de Ardales with evidence from the Middle Paleolithic period. Image credit: Ramos-Muñoz et al. / CC-BY 4.0.

Excavation area in Cueva de Ardales with evidence from the Middle Paleolithic period. Image credit: Ramos-Muñoz et al. / CC-BY 4.0.

Cueva de Ardales is the most outstanding cave with Paleolithic rock art in southern Iberia.

The cave is located near the village of Ardales, in a mountain know as Cerro de la Calinoria, at 565 m above sea level and at about 50 km north of the Mediterranean coast.

It was discovered in 1821 after an earthquake exposed a cave entrance previously sealed by deposits.

Cueva de Ardales contains over 1,000 paintings and engravings found on a wide variety of surfaces including walls, ceilings, ground rocks, speleothems and collapsed blocks.

They are mainly dated to the Upper Paleolithic, although the recent dating of carbonate crusts on abstract red depictions revealed that some of them are of Neanderthal authorship.

In a paper published in the journal PLoS ONE, University of Cadiz archaeologist José Ramos-Muñoz and colleagues present the results of the first excavations in Cueva de Ardales, which shed light on the history of human culture in the Iberian Peninsula.

A combination of radiometric dating and analysis of remains and artifacts within the cave provide evidence that the site’s first occupants were likely Neanderthals over 65,000 years ago.

Homo sapiens arrived later, around 35,000 years ago, and used the cave sporadically until as recently as the beginning of the Chalcolithic period (Copper Age).

The oldest rock art in the cave consists of abstract signs such as dots, finger tips, and hand-stencils created with red pigment, while later artwork depicts figurative paintings such as animals.

Human remains indicate the use of the cave as a burial place in the Holocene, but evidence of domestic activities is extremely poor, suggesting humans were not living in the cave.

These results confirm the importance of Cueva de Ardales as a site of high symbolic value.

“This site provides an incredible history of human activity in Spain, and along with similar sites — there are more than 30 other caves in the region with similar paintings — makes the Iberian Peninsula a key locality for investigating the deep history of European culture,” the researchers said.


J. Ramos-Muñoz et al. 2022. The nature and chronology of human occupation at the Galerias Bajas, from Cueva de Ardales, Malaga, Spain. PLoS ONE 17 (6): e0266788; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0266788


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