Confirmation that Neanderthals painted Andalusia’s Cueva de Ardales

A study conducted by scientists, including Francesco d’Errico from the Pacea laboratory, supports the idea that the color deposits found in the Ardales cave are intentional and date back almost 65,000 years. These findings have been published in the PNAS journal on the 2nd August 2021.

  • 01/09/2021

Flowstone formation at Cueva de Ardales (Malaga, Andalusia), with traces of red pigment © João Zilhão, ICREA Flowstone formation at Cueva de Ardales (Malaga, Andalusia), with traces of red pigment © João Zilhão, ICREA

The origin and date of appearance of prehistoric cave art are the subjects of ongoing debate. Spain’s Cueva de Ardales is one point of discussion where a flowstone formation is stained red in places. This coloring is apparently almost 65,000 years old. In comparison, the oldest paintings of Chauvet Cave, near the Pont d’Arc, have been dated back roughly 37,000 years; and those of Lascaux, 21,000 years. Until now, a part of the scientific community attributed this coloring to a natural coating of iron oxide deposited by flowing water. However, that hypothesis has just been rejected by the findings* of an international team of scientists including Francesco d’Errico, CNRS researcher at the Pacea laboratory (from Prehistory to Modern Times: Culture, Environment and Anthropology - CNRS, French Ministry of Culture and University of Bordeaux).

Red pigment intentionally deposited on flowstone surfaces

The team members analyzed samples of red residues collected from the flowstone surface and compared them with iron oxide–rich deposits in the cave. They concluded that the ochre-based pigment was intentionally applied, i.e. painted on by Neanderthals, as modern humans had yet to make their appearance on the European continent and notably, that it had probably been brought to the cave from an external source. 

Furthermore, variations in pigment composition between samples were detected, corresponding to different dates of application, sometimes many thousands of years apart. Thus, it seems that many generations of Neanderthals visited this cave and colored the draperies of the great flowstone formation with red ochre. This behavior indicates a motivation to return to the cave and symbolically mark the site, and it bears witness to the transmission of a tradition down through the generations.

* This work was funded by the LaScArBx archaeological science cluster, the Human Past research project, and the University of Bordeaux’s talent program.

Bibliographic reference

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, et José Ramos-Muñoz.

Scientific contact

Francesco d’Errico
Research director in archeology at the Pacea laboratory