Fossilized soot and charcoal make it possible to reconstruct the history of the Nerja cave

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Fossilized soot and charcoal make it possible to reconstruct the history of the Nerja cave


Image composition of the materials. (A) Black mark (dating number 33). (B) Micro-charcoal inside fixed lamp (dating number 43). (C) Scattered charcoals (dating number 54). (D) GN16-08 stalagmite section. The red arrows point to one of the samples, analyzed both by TEM–EDX and Raman micro-spectroscopy. Credit: Scientific Reports (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-32544-1

A new study reveals that Nerja is the European cave containing Paleolithic Art 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 , 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 , 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.

Fossilized soot and charcoal from torches dating back more than 8,000 years make it possible to reconstruct the history of the N
Curve plot with the different phases of visits to the interior of Nerja cave identified by a Bayesian model from charcoal (in red) and image of the different micro-layers of soot and micro-charcoal of the GN16-08 stalagmite, which increase the minimum number of occupations to at least 64 for the last 3 Bayesian phases. The succession of soot films in the carbonates is represented as barcode diagrams. Bars represent soot films and dashed lines represent probable soot films. The long vertical gray line next to the barcode represents speleothem total thickness. Credit: Scientific Reports (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-32544-1

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 humankind’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.

More information:
Mª Ángeles Medina-Alcaide et al, 35,000 years of recurrent visits inside Nerja cave (Andalusia, Spain) based on charcoals and soot micro-layers analyses, Scientific Reports (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-32544-1

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Fossilized soot and charcoal make it possible to reconstruct the history of the Nerja cave (2023, April 25)
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