Archaeologists have discovered and examined over a hundred Paleolithic paintings and engravings — thought to be at least 24,000 years old — in Cova Dones in Millares near Valencia, Spain. Their preliminary results reveal a rich graphic assemblage with features that are unusual for Mediterranean Upper Paleolithic art and were previously unknown for the Pleistocene in the eastern Iberian coast.
The site of Cova Dones consists of a single-gallery cave, approximately 500 m deep, that opens onto a steep canyon in the municipality of Millares near Valencia, Spain.
The cave is well-known by locals and often visited by hikers and explorers, but the existence of Paleolithic paintings was unnoticed until the archaeologists made the exciting discovery in June 2021.
So far, they have identified more than 110 graphic units, including at least 19 zoomorphic representations, located in three different zones of Cova Dones.
Despite being deep inside the cave (the main decorated area is approximately 400 m from the entrance), all zones, and the panels and figures they contain, are easily accessible without any climbing required.
The depicted animals are seven horses, seven hinds (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.
“When we saw the first painted auroch, we immediately acknowledged it was important,” said Dr. Aitor Ruiz-Redondo, an archaeologist at the University of Zaragoza and a research affiliate at the University of Southampton.
“Although Spain is the country with largest number of Paleolithic 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.”
“However, the actual ‘shock’ of realizing its significance came long after the first discovery.”
“Once we began the proper systematic survey we realized 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 large number of motifs and the variety of techniques involved in their creation make Cova Dones the most important Paleolithic cave art site on the eastern Mediterranean coast of the Iberian Peninsula.
In fact, it is probably the Paleolithic cave with the greatest number of motifs discovered in Europe since Atxurra (Bizkaia), in 2015.
“Animals and signs were depicted simply by dragging the fingers and palms covered with clay on the walls,” Dr. Ruiz-Redondo said.
“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 Paleolithic art, examples of its usage (or preservation) are scarce. In Cueva Dones, however, it is the main technique.”
The team’s paper was published in the journal Antiquity.
Aitor Ruiz-Redondo et al. Cova Dones: a major Palaeolithic cave art site in eastern Iberia. Antiquity, published online September 8, 2023; doi: 10.15184/aqy.2023.133