Cantabria in northern Spain is famous for its cave systems that are adorned with deeply-ancient prehistoric drawings . In archaeological terms National Geographic calls the Museo de Altamira “the Sistine Chapel of paleolithic art,” while Altamira is a renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now, cave explorers have discovered 16,500-year-old Paleolithic Age children’s footprints on an unexplored galley high up within the famous La Garma Cave complex.
Image shows the entrance to the La Garma cave complex, covered with a white sheet, where the Paleolithic Age footprints were found. (Mario Modesto / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Exploring an “Inexhaustible Source of Discoveries”
La Garma cave complex is located just north of the village of Omoño, part of the municipality of Ribamontán al Monte. Over 4,000 fossils dating back to between 175,000 years ago and the medieval period have been discovered here. Now, in an article in Spains News , the Vice-President of the Government of Cantabria, Pablo Zuloaga, announced what he called the “extraordinary discovery” of traces of 14 Paleolithic era children’s footprints, “in an exceptional state of preservation.”
According to an article in Archaeology News Network , Zuloaga said this single discovery places Cantabria at the “epicenter of scientific and archaeological research.” Furthermore, he explained that the finding consolidated La Garma as one of “the most important sites in the world for the knowledge of human behavior in the Paleolithic period.” The Director of Caves of Cantabria and MUPAC, Roberto Ontañón, along with Pablo Arias, a researcher and professor of Prehistory at the University of Cantabria, co-directed the research over the last 25 years. They agreed that the site is “an inexhaustible source of discoveries.”
This image shows the removed earth which was discovered next to the Paleolithic Age footprints. ( Gobierno de Cantabria )
You Can Look, But Don’t Touch
Professor Ontañón explained to Spain News that even after the incredible discovery of the children’s footprints, research into this new sector of La Garma “has only really just begun.” For years the archaeologists were limited to photographing the site because the fossils were too fragile to touch. But now, “geomatic techniques, such as topographic survey by laser scanner, photogrammetry, high resolution photography and 3D restitution of the site, for its ichnological analysis” will be adopted in future explorations of the cave gallery in which the footprints were discovered.
Measuring between 3 and 4 meters (9.84 to 13.12 ft) high and approximately 6 meters (19.68 ft) wide, the reason this gallery hadn’t been found until now is because it was hidden so high up within the recesses the cave. In fact, the gallery was located about 25 meters (82 ft) above the lower gallery.
Only last February, researcher Marián Cueto, while working in the Weitzman-Kreger gallery, observed a possible access several meters above Zone VII of the cave’s lower gallery. Then, on April 9th, Roberto Ontañón and speleologists Alfredo Corral de Miguel and Ana Varela Fernández, began exploring the gallery which they found comprised of claylike soil.
The first solid clue that indicated Paleolithic Age humans had once used the galley in came when the team noticed that some segments of clay had been removed from the floor. At the edges of the hollows where the gaps were left they discovered traces of human fingerprints in a vertical arrangement. This, they concluded, must have either been left by somebody small pulling the polygonal fragments of clay away.
The above plan shows the lower gallery of the La Garma cave complex (right) and the interior of the cave (left). (Cueto, M. et. al / PLOS ONE )
Measuring Footprints in the Clay of Time
The director of the MUPAC, Roberto Ontañón, said that on closer inspection of the fingerprints he “detected a small barefoot footprint.” This was followed by 13 more, with a length of 18 cm (0.59 ft) from toe to heel, indicating a group of 6 to 7-year-old children. This all leaves only one question unanswered. What on earth were a group of children doing on a galley so high up within the cave?
The researchers noticed that some of the prints discovered in the La Garma cave complex were only made by heels, while other depressions were caused by elbows. It would appear that around 16,500 years ago, a group of Paleolithic Age children, maybe even one of your ancestors, found comfort playing on a soft clay surface, just like children today love messing around in a sand pit.
Top image: Archaeologists have discovered Paleolithic Age footprints of children in a Cantabria cave. Source: Gobierno de Cantabria
By Ashley Cowie