Spelunker Stumbles on Cave Untouched for Thousands of Years, Full of Prehistoric Cave Bears Marks

BY Epoch Inspired Staff TIMEFebruary 15, 2023 PRINT

A gargantuan stone arch marks the entrance to a vast “Paleolithic Cathedral” recently stumbled upon by explorers in Spain.

This hulking beam of eroded living rock—set along Spain’s impressive Almadenes Canyon—took millennia to form. It now comprises the great façade of a newly-discovered, sprawling cave system. Aptly called Cueva del Arco (Cave of the Arch), the cave has been deemed a “world-class discovery” that may hold keys to understanding our ancient past.

Located in “Neanderthal territory,” just a few miles from the town of Cieza, its surroundings are already famous for their prehistoric rock paintings. Led by Professor Martín Lerma, of the University of Murcia, and Didac Román, of Jaume I University, researchers began an excavation campaign at Cueva del Arco in 2015.

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A stone arch marks the entrance to Cueva del Arco (Cave of the Arch). (Courtesy of University of Murcia via Ignacio Martín Lerma)
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Explorers outside of Cueva del Arco. (Courtesy of Ignacio Martín Lerma)
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Excavations at Cueva del Arco. (Courtesy of Ignacio Martín Lerma)
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Professor Martín Lerma, of the University of Murcia, excavates a stone wall that appears to be a “roof” of the cave. (Courtesy of University of Murcia)

A development unfolded in 2018 inside “Cavity D” when researchers dug out what they thought was a room filled with sediment blocking them from a larger cavity. As sediment and chunks of rock gave way through slow extraction, the stone walls took on a horizontal profile, forming a “roof.”

Their labors continued until, eventually, Lerma managed to squeeze his head and flashlight through the gap and confirmed their suspicions—they’d breached an air pocket of epic proportions within the surrounding rock that had long been sealed off, perhaps for as long as several millennia.

What Lay Beyond?

Would they find evidence of human occupation? Would there be rock art? These questions spurred the Spanish explorers to delve deeper. Though the passage seemed to extend not more than twenty meters, they would soon find it orders of magnitude longer.

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A view inside Cueva del Arco. (Courtesy of University of Murcia via Ignacio Martín Lerma)

But when the COVID pandemic shut down their operations unexpectedly in 2020, this imminent discovery was temporarily shelved. Now that excavations have gotten back on track, it has been confirmed: Cueva del Arco is far larger than they dreamed of. It ranks among the five largest caves in Murcia, a region known for its subterranean geologic wonders.

Once they realized the enormity of the find, they contacted collaborators in the project, the speleological group GECA de Cieza, and carried out a complete survey. After all the preliminary data was collected, they enlisted the help of Dr. J. M. Calaforra, of the University of Almería, and his team to assess the value of the underground rarity.

“It is a cavity with great geological and archaeological interest, both for the formations and for the perfect conservation of everything it contains,” Professor Lerma stated in a press release.

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The interior of Cueva del Arco. (Courtesy of Ignacio Martín Lerma)
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Inside Cueva del Arco. (Courtesy of University of Murcia via Ignacio Martín Lerma)
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A massive cavern inside Cueva del Arco. (Courtesy of University of Murcia via Ignacio Martín Lerma)
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A researcher exploring the cave system. (Courtesy of University of Murcia via Ignacio Martín Lerma)
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Stalagmitic deposits required thousands of years to form. (Courtesy of University of Murcia)

The voluminous heights of some of Cueva del Arco’s hollows call to mind the airy halls of gothic cathedrals, with some chambers soaring as high as 20 meters. The system extends some 1,500 meters in total length. It appears the cavern is related to the deep, possibly thermal, aquifers the area is known for and is not directly connected to the outside.

Spectacular geological formations of great interest have been found inside Cueva del Arco. In some of its rooms, scientists observed fistulous stalactites—spindly mineral deposits that hang eerily—each about 1 centimeter in diameter, with some extending almost three meters from the cave ceiling. These would have required conditions of extreme stability and isolation over thousands of years to form.

There is not only enormous geological value to be had in further studying the formation, as well as the air composition inside; but, seeing as Murcia is “Neanderthal territory,” the cavity carries important opportunity for anthropological inquiry.

Prehistoric Cavemen—And Cave Bears?

Findings inside have confirmed the existence of occupants belonging to the Neolithic, Solutrean, Gravettian, and Mousterian periods; ranging from 7,000 to 50,000 years ago, the press release stated. Further study may yield insight into the ages lasting between Neanderthals and modern humans.

Additionally, the researchers spotted hundreds of bear claw marks throughout the whole system with overlaying patinas and sediments leading them to estimate that these marks could be tens or even hundreds of thousands of years old.

Cueva del Arco is very much a world lost in time and is worth rediscovering.

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Researchers examine the interior of this natural wonder. (Courtesy of Ignacio Martín Lerma)
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Marks that appear to have been made by the claws of a bear. (Courtesy of Ignacio Martín Lerma)
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Bear claw marks appear throughout the cave system. (Courtesy of Ignacio Martín Lerma)

“We must bear in mind that we have an intact natural treasure on our hands and that is how it should continue to be,” stated Professor Lerma, invoking the need for protection of the site.

The entire perimeter of the Cueva del Arco has been closed off from visitors until scientific study is complete. And as the tunnels seem to have been sealed in perfect condition for many millennia, exploration has been carried out along a single marked path, as they aim to preserve as much of the pristine surface as possible.

“Due to the geological characteristics of the cave, we had been suspecting something like this [find] could happen for some time,” Professor Lerma stated. And although the exploration is still in its preliminary phases, he added that it has already “exceeded all our expectations.”

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Epoch Inspired staff cover stories of hope that celebrate kindness, traditions, and triumph of the human spirit, offering valuable insights into life, culture, family and community, and nature.
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