News Release

Fossilized soot and charcoal from torches dating back more than 8,000 years make it possible to reconstruct the history of the Nerja Cave

A new study reveals that Nerja is the European cave containing Paleolithic Art in with the most confirmed and recurrent visits during Prehistory

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Córdoba

María Medina in the Navarro Cave (Malaga)

image: María Medina in the Navarro Cave (Malaga) view more 

Credit: University of Cordoba

A new study reveals that Nerja is the European cave containing Paleolithic Art in with the most confirmed and recurrent visits during Prehistory

For 41,000 years human beings have been visiting the Cave of Nerja; for a few of them, it has been exploited as a tourist attraction, and for almost the same amount of time, the object of scientific study. Throughout its history, and even today, it continues to stun visitors and researchers from around the world.

The latest surprise from the cave, located in the province of Malaga, was just published in Scientific Reports by an international team including researchers from the University of Córdoba; Marian Medina, currently at the University of Bourdeux; Eva Rodríguez; and José Luis Sachidrián, a Professor of Prehistory and the scientific director of the Cave of Nerja. Together they have managed to demonstrate that Humanity has been present in Nerja for some 41,000 years, 10,000 years earlier than previously believed, and that it is Europe's cave featuring Paleolithic Art in Europe with the highest number of confirmed and recurrent visits to its interior during Prehistory. 

Specifically, this new work has managed to document 35,000 years of visits, in 73 different phases, which, according to their calculations, means that human groups entered the cave approximately every 35 years. This level of precision has been made possible thanks to the use of the latest techniques dating the coals and remains of fossilized soot on the stalagmites of the Nerja Cave. This is what has been called "smoke archaeology," a new technique developed by the main author of the work, Marián Medina, from Córdoba's Santa Rosa district, an honorary researcher at that city's university, who has been reconstructing European prehistory for more than a decade by analyzing the remnants of torches, fires and smoke in Spanish and French caves.

With the enthusiasm of one who loves what she does, Medina explains that the information that Transmission Electron Microscopy and Carbon-14 dating techniques can provide on man's rituals and ways of life is impressive. In this last work 68 datings are presented, 48 totally new, of the deepest areas of the cave, featuring Paleolithic Art, and evidence of chronocultures never previously recorded has been found. 

In addition, these "fire archaeologists" know how to interpret, based on the information detected under the microscope, the way in which the torches were moved, inferring from it the symbolic and scenographic use that humans of 40,000 years ago made of fire. "The prehistoric paintings were viewed in the flickering light of the flames, which could give the figures a certain sense of movement and warmth," explains Medina, who also underscores the funerary use of the Nerja Cave in the latter part of Prehistory, for thousands of years. "There is still much it can reveal about what we were like," she says.

Reference: Medina-Alcaide, M.Á., Vandevelde, S., Quiles, A. et al. 35,000 years of recurrent visits inside Nerja cave (Andalusia, Spain) based on charcoals and soot micro-layers analyses. Sci Rep 13, 5901 (2023).

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