UP prof’s study on cave art published by Scientific Reports

The research Unraveling the Skills and Motivation of Magdalenian Artists in the Depths of Atxurra Cave (Northern Spain) co-authored by Juan Rofes, PhD, recently landed on the pages of Scientific Reports, the online, open-access, peer-reviewed part of Nature Portfolio, covering studies on natural sciences, psychology, medicine, and engineering.

Rofes. Photo from the UP School of Archaeology Facebook page

Rofes is an associate professor at the UP Diliman School of Archaeology and is an environmental archaeologist and paleontologist. He co-authored the research with Diego Garate, PhD, a professor at the Department of Historical Sciences of the Universidad de Cantabria in Spain; Olivia Rivero, a lecturer of Paleolithic art at the Department of Prehistory, Ancient History, and Archaeology of the Universidad de Salamanca in Spain; and nine others.

“The comprehensive study through a multidisciplinary approach in the exceptional archaeological record of the Ledge of the Horses in Atxurra Cave, has provided us with relevant information about how the Paleolithic human groups decorated their caves,” the researchers stated in their paper.

According to the article Archaeologists Are Seeing Cave Art in a New Light by Bridget Alex published online by Atlas Obscura accessed on 5 Dec. 2023, the Ledge of the Horses is an artwork by Paleolithic people who “carved scores of galloping bison and tail-swishing horses on a wall eight feet above” the floor of the Atxurra Cave in Northern Spain.

Image from the paper featuring a map, a photo of the Ledge of the Horses, and a plan of the cave. Image from the Scientific Reports

Rofes et. al. said the Ledge of the Horses contains the main concentration of rock art inside the cave.

The researchers said, “a multiproxy approach to this archaeological space allows us to define and recreate all the operational chains involved in the artistic creation and use of the Ledge of the Horses in Atxurra Cave.”

Furthermore, the researchers found that, “We can describe the disposition of this rock art ensemble, classifying the figures in three thresholds according to the values of visibility of the natural shapes: low, medium, and high visibility. This is obtained by virtually simulating the scenario as if the fireplaces found under them were lit and counting the number of observers who can see each figure using GIS [Geographic Information System].”

In their analysis, “the less visible figures… are those disposed in the lower part of the canvas, and in its corners. They are small, including some unfinished figures. In any case, there are also some striking examples of complex (combination of different techniques) and finished (abundance of corporal details like pelage) animal figures, like small bison completely full of projectiles, or two hinds.”

The study also found that in general, “in the deeper contexts of the caves, the amount of archaeological remains is scarce.”

The researchers reasoned, “This is because they come from one-off activities and brief incursions, and these remains can be described accordingly as a ‘discrete’ archaeological context. The remains generally appear on the surface, on the ground or on the walls, where materials of different chronologies can be found, which do not necessarily belong to the same temporal episode.”

“Through this study, we have prove[n] that the parietal art decoration process featuring the Upper Magdalenian artist is the result of a complex and close relationships between the location of the artworks, the engraving techniques and technology, their visibility and organization in the space, and the illumination systems,” they concluded.

They also found that the “iconographic display has been conceived and adapted to be seen by a third person and from another point in the gallery where the capacity is higher.”

Rofes and his colleagues explained, “This requires deep and thoughtful planning including an attentive observation of space, which allows us to emphasize the idea of so-called Paleolithic art as a system of visual communication with a specific message shared by the human group involved in the action or even by other different groups. Consequently, the archaeological data recovered and analyzed in the Ledge of the Horses of Atxurra Cave is of relevance for a deeper understanding of one of the most relevant activities carried out by Upper Paleolithic human groups.”

For more of the research, visit the Scientific Reports.