A cave in southern Spain known as the Cave of the Bats has unveiled a treasure trove of ancient artifacts, rewriting the history of prehistoric European societies. The site, known as Cueva de los Murciélagos in Spanish, has provided valuable insights into the craftsmanship, culture, and societal evolution of early humans in the region.
Within this cave, dating back nearly 10,000 years, people carefully buried their deceased loved ones with exquisite baskets and sandals. These intricate artifacts, crafted from the local flat-leaved esparto grass, demonstrate an astounding level of skill and artistry. What’s even more astonishing is that these baskets, including a collection of more than 9,500 years old, represent the oldest known surviving baskets in Europe.
The research, led by Francisco Martinez-Sevilla from the University of Alcalá in Spain, challenges previous assumptions about early human communities in southern Europe. While it was previously thought that basketry was a feature of Neolithic farming societies, these findings indicate that the art of basket-making was already well-established during the Mesolithic era, also known as the Middle Stone Age, which predates the advent of agriculture.
The researchers’ use of carbon-14 dating revealed that the baskets and sandals represent two distinct periods: the Mesolithic (7950-7360 BCE) and the Neolithic (4370-3740 BCE). This timeline suggests a 2,000-year gap in the cave’s use before early Neolithic farmers continued the tradition, using more advanced weaving techniques to create a wide array of items, including cords, 2-D and 3-D woven baskets, sandals, mats, and bags.
Some of the baskets feature complex geometric patterns created with dyed fibers, and some even included adornments such as human hairs and pigments. The intricate craftsmanship of these baskets challenges previous notions of the simplicity of pre-agricultural societies.
The preservation of these organic materials is a remarkable feat in itself. The Cave of the Bats boasts an ideal environment for artifact preservation, thanks to its deep, dry, and arid conditions. The cave’s humidity is nearly zero, and the dry wind, combined with geological conditions, has created the perfect recipe for preserving these ancient objects.
The Cave of the Bats, originally explored in the 19th century by miners seeking bat guano and minerals like lead ore, has revealed a treasure trove of archaeological finds. These discoveries include partially mummified human remains, baskets, stone tools, and boar’s teeth. Unfortunately, many of these valuable artifacts were treated with little respect by the miners, who even used some as fuel for their boilers.
“The preservation at the site of Cueva de los Murciélagos is truly remarkable,” says Katina Lillios, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of Iowa. The radiocarbon dating of these plant-based artifacts in this unique cave setting has expanded our understanding of the technologies and customs of early foraging peoples.
Further research on the age and sex of the human remains found in the cave will provide even more details about these ancient communities. The Cave of the Bats stands as a unique site in Europe, offering a window into the organic materials of prehistoric populations.
This discovery highlights the enduring traditions of working with esparto grass, as the same techniques and raw materials are still used by local craftsmen in Iberia (Spain and Portugal). It demonstrates the continuity of these ancient practices, even after thousands of years.
More information: Francisco Martínez-Sevilla et al. (2023), The earliest basketry in southern Europe: Hunter-gatherer and farmer plant-based technology in Cueva de los Murciélagos (Albuñol). Sci. Adv. 9, eadi3055. DOI:10.1126/sciadv.adi3055