Researchers Flying Drones Have Discovered 7,000-Year-Old Cave Paintings in the Mountains of Spain

It's one of the first instances of drones being used to find cave paintings.

Aerial view of the mountains of Penaguila where the archeologists at University of Alicante used drones to look for rock art. Image: courtesy University of Alicante.

For the past 40 years, hiking rugged terrain has been a necessary part of research for archeologists at University of Alicante. The mountains around Alicante and Valencia teem with prehistoric cave paintings and the only way to access them was by foot. Or so they thought.

Javier Fernandez Molina, a geo-archaeology researcher, wanted to try something new: fitting drones with cameras. He’s an authorized drone pilot and thought it would be an expedient way of surveying difficult to reach caves. In its first aerial foray, the team entered 18 caves, two of which contained prehistoric cave paintings dating back 7,000 years.

“There are many inaccessible areas of the Alicante mountains. Using a drone to photograph walls is a quick method and this recent find means there are many prehistoric cave paintings to be found,” Molina told Artnet News, noting that our distant ancestors likely created scaffolding structures to reach some of the caves.

Drone cave painting photo

Painted human figures on a cave wall captured by drone photography. Photo courtesy University of Alicante.

The raw photos of the caves were analyzed and enlarged in Photoshop, revealing precisely what the team had hoped for. In the first cave, located in a Castellet-Barranc del Salt ravine, there was a scene of figures, roughly four inches in size, including archers, deer, and goats, some blighted by an arrow. In the second, there were similar paintings, albeit in poorer condition.

The researchers believe it is something of a breakthrough discovery that will lead to a better understanding on how cave painting styles evolved in the region. Exploration in the region has been ongoing since the 1980s with today’s archaeologists building off the work of the local researchers Mauro Hernández, Pere Ferrer, and Enric Catalá who published the authoritative text on prehistoric rock art in Alicante.

drone photo rock cave painting

Paintings of humans and animals measuring around four inches in size captured by drone photography. Photo courtesy University of Alicante.

cave rock art drone painting

Paintings captured by drone photography. Photo courtesy University of Alicante.

Although drones are being used with increasing frequency in the field archaeology, it is one of the first instances of them being deployed to hunt for cave paintings. The team hopes to use its findings, which were published in the scientific journal Lucentum, to apply to the regional cultural heritage authorities for a permit to study the area with greater rigor.

“This just the beginning,” fellow researcher Virginia Gonzalez told Artnet News. “Once we have obtained the permits, we will start the documentation work in the first cave. The idea is to extend the research to other nearby areas that are difficult to access.”


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