Fifty-six years ago today, on January 12, 1959, five young boys from the vicinity of the town of Nerja, Spain went out hunting for bats near a sinkhole, called La Mina, where they were known to congregate. The boys’ names were Francisco Navas Montesinos, Miguel Muñoz Zorrilla, Manuel Muñoz Zorrilla, José Luis Barbero de Miguel and José Torres Cárdenas. They found bats, but noticed the creatures were flying in and out of holes in the rocks, and they suspected there was some sort of chamber behind La Mina. The next day, after moving aside from stalagmites to gain access, they explored one of the holes and made a stunning discovery: a huge complex of natural caves, complete with pottery fragments and human skeletal remains, indicating that the place–unknown to anyone then living in Nerja–had once been inhabited very long ago in the distant past.

The discovery of the Caves of Nerja, as they came to be known, turned out to be a breathtaking development in the cultural history of mankind. Here was a huge complex of caverns stretching for more than 3 miles and filled with spectacular rock formations accreted over millions of years by the slow dripping of groundwater through fissures in the rocks. Furthermore, as scientific and archaeological experts examined the caves and the various bones and artifacts they found there, it became clear that various groups of human beings called the Caves of Nerja home at least from approximately 25,000 BCE to about 3600 BCE–a span of more than 200 centuries–and more recent discoveries suggest they could have been inhabited much earlier than that. To put that in context, the Pyramids in Egypt are “only” about 5,000 years old. Humans lived in these caves for more than four times the amount of time the Pyramids have existed.

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Human beings lived in the Caves of Nerja for a long, long, long time. Some of them never left, such as this one, whose remains were found near the entrance of the caverns.

But who were the people who lived here, and what were their lives like? History gets maddeningly vague the further back you go, so all we know about the caves’ inhabitants come from the clues they left behind. Apparently in the early phases of human habitation, people lived in the caves only part of the year, perhaps “hibernating” here for the winter. In the summer months, hyenas lived in parts of the caves. But about 21,000 BCE people took up permanent residence. As their technology and development grew slowly they figured out how to make pottery and weapons to help with hunting. In the final centuries that people lived here, there is evidence that they were farming in nearby areas and brought domesticated animals into the caves. The way prehistory is usually taught, the discovery of agriculture and decisions by peoples to remain sedentary, in communities oriented around farms, are traditionally viewed as related developments–the establishment of “civilization.” Nerja seems to challenge this traditional idea, as there is no doubt that a human community living in the same place for 20,000 years certainly counts as remaining sedentary.

After the rediscovery of the caves in 1959, experts from Spain and around the world took eighteen months to catalogue, photograph and examine the site, learning what they could, before opening it to the public. Almost as soon as the Caves of Nerja opened as a tourist attraction it was one of Spain’s most popular and most-visited sites. One cavern within the cave system, now called the Hall of the Waterfall, proved to be just the right size and shape to provide perfect acoustics. Music concerts and dance recitals have been held here since the cave’s opening to the public in June 1960, and now it’s famous for these performances. Thus, curiously, modern cultural expression has found a niche in one of mankind’s most ancient homes. There’s something very interesting and satisfying about this.

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Tiny particles of rock carried in water dripping through the caverns has created these magnificent stalagmites and stalactites. The geologic process that created them is still going on.

The fact that the caves are now a tourist attraction doesn’t mean that study has stopped on them, or that further discoveries aren’t still being made. Only a certain portion of the rooms are open to the public, and a large portion of the complex is still off-limits to all but trained researchers and explorers. In one of these back areas in 2012 Spanish researchers discovered cave paintings dating from the Neanderthal period. Ghostly red and black paint images show goats, birds, deer and even seals. The remains of firepits near the paintings radiocarbon dated to an astonishing 42,000 years ago. Previously, experts did not believe Neanderthals were capable of creative expression. These stunning pictures tell a different story. Modern humans did not descend from Neanderthals, but rather replaced them. Thus, the cave art at Nerja represents the cultural contribution of literally a vanished race of beings who have been extinct since the Stone Age. Just think about that for a moment.

I think the Caves of Nerja are fascinating because they represent an example of what historians, especially environmental historians, call “deep time”–history that stretches back long before there were written records, but which is continuous with the present. Humans and their genetic relatives lived here for tens of thousands of years. Then as history advanced their homes passed out of all human knowledge, only to be discovered in the 20th century by a couple of kids looking for bats. This is the kind of story you find in fantasy novels, but seldom in real life. That’s what makes it all the more wondrous when it really does happen.

The image at the top of this article is by Wikimedia Commons user Ignasilm and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The image of the skeleton is by Wikimedia Commons user Pedroserafin and is used under Creative Commons 2.5 (Attribution) license. The photo of the stalactites is by Panoramio user ^ozo^ and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.