In a place known as the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic cave art, in the region of Bizkaia, Spain, 50 cave etchings have been discovered. They were determined to be more than 14,500 years old. The paintings were unearthed in the modern town of Lekeitio, and researchers are calling them a “treasure to mankind” due to their exceptional artistic technique, as well as quality and visibility. Aside from their artistic allure, what else do these cave paintings tell us?

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Pictures released by Provincial Council of Biscay showing 14,000 year old cave engravings in the Basque village of Lekeitio. © Diputacion Foral de Bizkaia / AFP

Bizkaia regional official Unai Rementeria announced the discovery in a press conference recently, saying the etchings were some of the most fine in all of the Iberian peninsula.

Among the figures carved into the stone surface are horses, bison, goats and, for the first time, at least two lions.

Cave engravings (top) representing animals like horses, bisons, lions or goats, and a highlighted version, in the Armintxe cave in the Basque village of Lekeitio. © Diputacion Foral de Bizkaia / AFP

Cave engravings (top) representing animals like horses, bisons, lions or goats, and a highlighted version, in the Armintxe cave in the Basque village of Lekeitio. © Diputacion Foral de Bizkaia / AFP

The region of Bizkaia neighbors the region of Cantabria, home to the famous Altamira cave paintings, Spain’s most prized prehistoric cave art site.

Some of the cave paintings found in this area have been so ‘advanced’ that researchers accused the people who have found them of trying to perpetuate a hoax. In 1879 a Spanish landowner named Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was searching for prehistoric artifacts on the floor of a cave on his family’s property in northern Spain when his daughter looked up at a cave ceiling an exclaimed, “Look, Papa, oxen!”

Sanz de Sautuola was looking at vivid yet delicate paintings of bison, almost fully life-sized, that appear to be tumbling across the sky. When he brought researchers to the cave, their authenticity was greatly questioned, until two hundred more caves covered with paintings were found in southwestern France and northeastern Spain along the Pyrenees.

Since the late 1800s researchers have been arguing about the true meaning of these cave paintings. Were they simply artistic renderings of life and every-day objects as the artists experienced them, or were there other meanings hidden within them?

What is it about these dark, subterranean, mysterious places that draw so much wonder?

It is even more interesting to see that there were 32 symbols which were used repeatedly, so ancient cave-artists were intentionally making graphic depictions of something that was important to them. This is especially controversial considering that Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and even the earliest Chinese script, all emerged (according to current scientific dogma) between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, with each coming into existence from an earlier protosystem made up of counting marks and pictographic representations, where the meaning and the image were the same.

If nothing else, this means that more than 14,500 years ago artists were making their mark – one which would forever change how we communicate. But aside from the graphic images, there is the fact that most of these cave paintings happened in extremely remote areas, and were likely part of spiritual rituals. These drawings represent our earliest recorded copy of a search for the sacred.

This is why some of these site shave become the focus of modern pilgrimages, and even miracles. The legendary Monserrat is known the world over, and draws more than a million pilgrims every year. Some believe this is the place where the Arc of the Covenant was once stored. The Ark is said to have super natural powers, and is mentioned in both Jewish and Christian texts. This mountain and its caves are only a small sample of the thousands of places scattered across Europe where our ancestors looked for the divine in the mundane. It should come as no surprise to researchers that the art found within these caves is ‘advanced.’ We learn more every day that the human race has an enigmatic history, with new facts being unearthed every day. Perhaps each new cave painting will reveal another secret.