14,000 year-old cave art discovered

Around 70 paintings found in Atxurra cave in Basque in northern Spain
Cave art Atxurra An archeologist explains the cave paintings in Atxurra cave in Northern Spain. (Courtesy of Bizkaia.eus)


Art has a way of living forever. Not sure what I mean? Well, take Vincent Van Gogh, for example. The Dutch painter died over a century ago in 1890, and yet his pieces remain just as vibrant and loved as when they were first made. Japan's Hokusai died in 1849, but his woodblock print The Great Wave off Kanagawa is still one of the most recognized (and copied) pieces of art in the world. Michelangelo died in 1564 (over 450 years ago!) and his masterwork, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, is marvelled at and visited by up to 20,000 people a day.

The point being, long after the people who have made it have died, the art lives on. There's something beautiful about that, don't you think? But it's one thing to endure for over 400 years. It's another thing entirely to last almost 14,000 more...

A historic find

Cave paintings Atxurra
One of the cave paintings of a bison. Archeologists have added lines over top to make the markings clearer. (courtesy of Bizkaia.eus)

At the end of this May, a team led by Spanish archeologist Diego Garate discovered an incredible collection of cave art 300 metres (about 1000 feet) underground. It is estimated that the art is between 12,000 and 14,500 years old. The cave system where they were found is known as Atxurra. Amazingly, even though Atxurra has been known to archeologists since 1929, this artwork was only just found now. (This gives you an idea of how vast, deep, and inaccessible some of this cave is.) But it's more than just the difficulty in locating this particular find that makes it exciting. Simply coming across art this old and well-preserved is very rare.

"Discoveries of this caliber are not made every year, at most, once a decade," commented Garate to Spanish website, The Local. "It is important because of the quantity of figures depicted, their excellent conservation and for the presence of associated archeological materials such as charcoal and flint tools."

Artwork a window into daily life

Cave paintings Atxurra
This bison painting shows the animal being hunted with spears. (courtesy of Bizkaia.eus)

The 70 or so pieces show many animals, including images of deer, horses, goats, and bison pierced by dozens of hunters' spears. "There a lot of caves with drawings but very few have this much art and this much variety and quality," commented Jose Yravedra, who is a prehistory professor at Complutense University in Spain's capital, Madrid.

As old as this art is, there are older collections that have been discovered. Aboriginal artwork in Australia's Northern Territory dates back 28,000 years. And elsewhere in Spain, cave art in El Castillo dates back at least 40,800 years! But if Atxurra is not the oldest out there, it's a remarkable window into the lives of our ancestors. People who existed in a world far different from ours. We may not know their names as we know Michelangelo, but they live on in these drawings.

As Garate himself put it, "Without a doubt it is the most important discovery of my career."

Check out a video of the archeologists guiding you through the cave art they found. It's in Spanish, mind you, but even if you don't speak the language, it's pretty cool to see.


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