Going Underground - La Cueva de Malalmuerzo
Last week, we felt extremely privileged to be allowed to go and visit an archaeological dig. We have written recently about the depth of history here in our immediate vicinity, and the sheer scale of the timeline is becoming increasingly hard to comprehend.
We know from visiting the Museo de Arqueológico in Granada that there was a settlement in the province dating back 1.5 million years, but archaeological discoveries on our doorstep have now revealed that we had inhabitants here 60,000 years ago, just outside what is now the village of Moclín.
La Cueva de Malalmuerzo has become one of the most important archaeological sites in Spain. The whereabouts of the cave has always been known to villagers here, and not that long ago, the cave was open for anyone to wander in. In fact, rumour has it, that many a villager here has some artefact, acquired when the cave was open for all to visit - ceramics, bits of bone etc.
Archaeologists initially took an interest in La Cueva de Malalmuerzo back in 1983 when neolithic discoveries were made in the first, main chamber of the complex. It was only after a subsequent protracted period of looting and damage to the calcified interiors that the local ayuntamiento (town hall) decided to take emergency action in order to protect and preserve this hugely important site.
In 2016, the archaeologists returned to investigate the site in more detail and the complex was closed to visitors. In these past 2 years, some amazing discoveries have been made dating the caves back to the palaeolithic age, with inhabitants thought to have been here 60,000 years ago.
From the main entrance cavern, where remnants have been found from the ancient and middle neolithic periods, there are tight tunnels that lead through to the older network where cave drawings have been discovered from the Solutrean period (estimated at between 22,000 - 17,000 years Before the Present). The cave drawings represent animals, a horse and a bull, and many other signs and symbols painted in black or red pigment. These caves are extraordinary spaces filled with stalactites stabbing downwards into the cold, dark voids and even today, there must be a similar sense of the thrill that was experienced by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon when they stumbled across the tomb of Tutankhamun. There is a very real sense that this underground labyrinth still has many more secrets to be revealed.
One of the discoveries we were shown was the jaw bone of a neanderthal, still with two teeth and it has been interesting to read, subsequently, that teeth found in the cave have been traced, using DNA, to be linked to the same race of American Indians. A comment was also made that the teeth were still in such good condition because of the absence of sugar in the original owner’s diet!
Inside the main cavern, where small areas of calcification had been stripped off, the rock beneath was carved with lines and symbols.
A fourth chamber has recently been discovered, but all apart from the main entrance chamber are closed off to visitors while archaeologists sift through each area with meticulous attention to detail. There are around 25 archaeologists, from around the world, working on the site at any given time, and whilst we were there we saw the team picking out fragments of bone, ceramic, rock, checking even the finest tilth.
We are both fairly claustrophobic, and the idea of crawling through tight tunnels really does not appeal one bit. We were shown the entrance to the tunnel that leads from the entrance chamber through to the older caves, and there was no way we would have attempted the crawl, particularly with other people in front and behind in the queue! To give you some idea, we have provided the link to a video taken before the caves were closed off, and this gives a great overview of the structure of the complex. Watching this video gave us both that squeamish claustrophobic tightness in the pits of our stomachs:
The day we visited, with a couple of the Cultural leads from the Ayuntamiento of Moclín, there were two small parties, and the visit was very well managed. Walking through the olive groves, in the middle of the most glorious countryside, we approached the rock that sits on top of the cave network. If anyone has ever seen the Peter Weir film version of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ then you will understand the rather other-worldly sense of mystery that such places evoke. We were given introductory talks about the work that was being done, and the discoveries that are still being made. Despite the main cavern being active with archaeologists, we were shown the main important features - the man-made striations in the rock, the formations of stalactites, the narrow entrance to the tunnel leading further into the complex. Due to the continuing work, and the vital need to protect this hugely important historical site, entrance to the older chambers has been stopped for anyone other than the archaeological team.
It’s very hard to put into words the experience of disappearing into the ground to be in a place of habitation that is at least 60,000 years old; a world hidden from view, where artefacts can be found that tell a fragmented story of the lives these people led. It is equally surreal to emerge from this subterranean village into the bright, warm sunlight of the present day, to walk back through the ancient olive groves, get in a car and drive to the nearest bar. It certainly felt like the closest thing to time travel that we have both experienced.
If you are planning a visit to Granada Province, and you'd love to include a trip to see some of the many fascinating historical sites that make up this part of Spain, do get in touch with us at Granada Concierge.