Caves of Nerja, a natural wonder that we have inhabited for 40,000 years

In the eastern part of Málaga’s La Axarquía there is a village that has a seafaring atmosphere. Next to the border with the province of Granada, Nerja has used its natural attractions to stand out in the tourist world. Among them are its beaches, but also a cavity in the ground. These are the extraordinary Caves of Nerja, a cavity that stands out on a historical and geological level. Located in the centre of Maro, it has hundreds of metres of galleries and remains of human activity from 40,000 years ago.

Inside the Nerja caves

Inside the Nerja caves. | Shutterstock

The 40,000 years of the Caves of Nerja

Far from the sun and sand that characterise the town that hosts it, the caves of Nerja are first and foremost a large prehistoric site. Being at the southern end of the peninsula, it contrasts with those in the Cantabrian Sea, such as Altamira, or in areas closer to the plateau, such as Atapuerca. However, the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods in Andalusia or Extremadura also left behind landmarks of enormous importance such as Lácara in Badajoz, Los Millares in Almería or the area discussed in this article.

Goat from the Nerja caves

Goat from the Nerja caves. | Web of the caves of Nerja

The presence of humans in the Caves of Nerja has been proven in a period as old as 40 or 45,000 years ago. However, it was about 10,000 years later, in the Gravetiense, when it seems that it began to be inhabited continuously. In this millennial impasse, people did go into its galleries, but they did not settle there. Some devices found suggest that the Neanderthals were their occasional tenants at that time.

Although the general public only knows about the open segment, there are others that only host research teams. They are the New Gallery and part of the Altas. The fact that there are remains scattered throughout them all suggests that the cave is exceptional, since its ancestral inhabitants went much deeper into it than into others. It was modern humanity that made the cave paintings in the place.

Nerjeó archaeological site Gravelines point

Nerjeó archaeological site Gravelines point. | Nerja Caves website

The oldest are 24,000 years old, although most are from a period known as the Solutrense period, about 19,000 years ago. Red and black are predominantly used to delineate animals, such as goats or horses, as well as sexually dimorphic deer. A wide range of colours is distributed between open and closed areas. Along with these there are mysterious symbols, which have been interpreted as codifications of information. The later Palaeolithic inhabitants continued to draw, as well as those from the early Neolithic and the Copper Age. They are responsible for anthropomorphic representations, at a time when the caves of Nerja became a place of burial.

In addition to cave art, objects and bones have been found; both human and animal. Shell lamps, burins, arrowheads, funeral trousseaux… Many of them can be seen in the Nerja Museum, in the Plaza de España in the town. A highly recommended visit to understand perfectly what can be seen in the tourist galleries of the hollow.

Doe and signs of the Solutrense

Doe and signs of the Solutrense. | Web of the caves of Nerja

A geological treasure in the heart of Costa del Sol

The width of the cave and the many galleries it has make its examples of cavernous formations, the speleothems, of an enormous variety. It is thus one of the most complete and striking sets of Andalusia, next to the Cave of Wonders in Aracena, Huelva. In this case the size is a question to take into account. Some of its columns, stalagmites and stalactites that come to join, reach proportions that are hard to believe. Not in vain, the largest of all was declared the largest on the planet by the Guinness Book of Records. It is 32 metres high and up to 14 metres wide.

Tourist galleries in the Nerja Caves

Tourist galleries in the Nerja Caves. | Shutterstock

The reason why the Nerja caves are a “museum of speleothems”, as their official website says, is the process of creation that they underwent. At first it was the water that filtered into the subsoil and chemical reactions that dissolved part of it and generated a cavity. Movements in the tectonic plates led to the water level falling below this huge hole. Meanwhile, 800,000 years ago, an earthquake caused multiple formations to fall, leaving rooms as striking as the “mountain”.

Nerja speleothems

Nerja speleothems. | Shutterstock

With the passing of thousands of years, new formations and the rooms that have been discovered today were consolidated. From the tourist galleries, the Cataclismo room stands out, where the aforementioned column can be admired. The Fantasmas (ghosts) one, whose rocks remind us of this type of entities, or the Cascada and the Ballet, used as scenery, are other famous ones. Recently the Altas galleries have been opened, with spaces such as the Immensidad or the Peces. Of great depth, they house some of the cave paintings mentioned above.

Rock formations that can be seen in the caves of Nerja

Rock formations that can be seen in the caves of Nerja. | Shutterstock

The endemic beings of the Caves of Nerja provide a value parallel to the geological and cultural. Some of them are organisms whose evolution diverged from the rest of their congeners due to isolation. In other cases it even stopped, thanks to the stable ecosystem of the environment. Therefore, there are small invertebrates that constitute biological relics, as well as unique species of isopods or pseudo-scorpions, among others.

Rincón del Órgano

Rincón del Órgano. | Shutterstock

The most unexpected finding

Everything described above would remain undiscovered if it were not for a coincidence. A story that is repeated in other of the most remarkable caves in Spain. In this case we must go back to 1959. At that time a group of young people from the area would go into a cavity called “la mina” to catch bats. During their travels, they fortunately found a passage to what seemed to be a large room. Two formations did not allow access, so they decided to cut them off. Unfortunately, in their first inquiries they came across a skeleton.

They were frightened and went to their elders and the authorities. It soon became clear that this was a major discovery. The place attracted the attention of Malaga or Madrid and the experts set to work. Teams were sent from the capital of the Costa del Sol and in 1960 it was possible to visit it as a tourist attraction. During this process the original entrance was found which was used by the first humans to enter the caves of Nerja. A large rock was responsible for the fact that no one had access to the place for thousands of years, preserving it.

Concert in the Nerja Caves

Concert in the Nerja Caves. | FOTOS RTVA (Flickr)

This issue, maintaining the great condition of the cave, has caused one of its great traditions to become a thing of the past. It is the concerts that take place in rooms like the one in the Cascada. Although little by little the number of people attending has been reduced; it has been proven that these cultural activities affect the speleothems. As an alternative, an outdoor auditorium has been built. A way of ensuring the future of the caves.

Regarding the visit, it has guided options and normally includes the tourist galleries. Among the alternatives it proposes are audio guides or a night visit carried out by Miguel Joven. This actor is remembered for playing Tito in Verano Azul, a series that made Nerja famous. Well connected with Malaga by the A-7, as well as with Granada territory, the exteriors allow to arrive by car without any problem. Therefore it is easy to reach from Velez-Malaga, Torre del Mar, Almuñecar or Motril, as well as the nearby provincial capitals.

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