Cave Dwellers

Cave Dwellers, term used to designate ancient people who occupied caves in various parts of the world. Cave dwellers date generally from that part of the Stone Age called the Paleolithic, which started, according to some authorities, about 2 million years ago. Caves are natural shelters, offering shade and protection from wind, rain, and snow. As archaeological sites, caves are easy to locate and often provide conditions that encourage the preservation of normally perishable materials, such as bone. As a result, the archaeological exploration of caves has contributed significantly to the reconstruction of the human past.

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Wherever caves were available, prehistoric nomadic hunters and gatherers incorporated them into the yearly cycle of seasonal camps. Most of their activities took place around campfires at the cave mouth, and some caves contain stone walls and pavements providing additional protection from winds and dampness. Hunting, particularly of reindeer, horse, red deer, and bison, was important; many caves are situated on valley slopes providing views of animal migration routes.

The Variety of Artifacts

Artifacts have been found in caves in France, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Great Britain. The association of these remains with the bones of extinct animals, such as the cave bear and saber-toothed tiger, indicates the great antiquity of many of the cave deposits. 

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(see photo) and bone points discovered in excavated caves documents the importance of spears until the bow and arrow appeared in the late Paleolithic era. Other common tools included stone scrapers for working hides and wood, burins for engraving, and knives for butchering and cutting. Throughout the Paleolithic period such tools became increasingly diverse and well made. Bone needles, barbed harpoons, and spear-throwers were made and decorated with carved designs. Evidence of bone pendants and shell necklaces also exists. Among the caves that have yielded relics of early humans are the Cro-Magnon and Vallonnet in France.

Wall paintings and engravings have been found in more than 200 caves, largely in Spain and France, dating from 25,000 to 10,000 years ago. Frequently found deep inside the caves, the paintings depict animals, geometric signs, and occasional human figures. In the cave of La Colombi�re in France, a remarkable series of sketches engraved on bone and smoothed stones was unearthed in 1913. In caves such as Altamira in Spain and Lascaux in France, multicolored animal figures were drawn using mineral pigments mixed with animal fats. Some of the paintings adorn walls of large chambers suitable for ritual gatherings; others are found in narrow passages accessible only to individuals. Hunting and fertility seem to have been important artistic themes. The ritual gatherings themselves promoted communication and intermarriage among the normally scattered small groups.

On every continent, prehistoric foragers made use of caves. Chinese caves contain some of the earliest evidence of human use of fire, approximately 400,000 years ago. In the Zhoukoudian (Chou-k'ou-tien) Cave near Beijing, remains of bones and tools of Homo erectus (Peking Man) have been discovered. In the Shandar Cave in Iraq, 50,000-year-old Neandertal skeletons were unearthed in 1957. Ancient pollen buried with them has been interpreted as evidence that these cave dwellers had developed funeral rituals. In the western deserts of North America, caves have been located that contain plant foods, woven sandals, and baskets, representing the desert culture of 9000 years ago. Early inhabitants of Australia, the Middle East, and the Peruvian Andes have also left remains in caves.

Gradually people learned to grow food, rather than forage for it. This was the beginning of the Neolithic age, which, although ending in western Europe some 4500 years ago, continued elsewhere in the world until modern times. Once agriculture became important, people established villages of permanent houses and found new uses for caves, mainly as hunting and herding campsites and for ceremonial activities. In Europe, Asia, and Africa caves continued to be used as shelters by nomadic groups.

Preservation in Caves

In dry caves, preservation is often excellent, due to moistureless air and limited bacterial activity. Organic remains such as charred wood, nutshells, plant fibers, and bones sometimes are found intact. In wet caves, artifacts and other remains often are found encrusted with, or buried beneath, calcareous deposits of dripstone. The collected evidence of human habitation on the cave floor was often buried under rockfalls from the ceilings of caverns. Intentional burials have also been found in a number of cave sites.

Because of the unusual preservative nature of caves and the great age of many of the remains found in them, the fallacious belief has arisen that a race of cave people existed. Actually, most cave sites represent small, seasonal camps. Because prehistoric people spent much of the year in open-air camps, the caves contain the remains of only part of a group's total activities. Also, the cultural remains outside caves were subject to greater decay. Thus, the archaeological record of remote times is better seen in cave deposits.

Caves have been systematically excavated during the past one hundred years. Since they often contain the remains of repeated occupations, caves can document changing cultures. For example, the economic transition from food collecting to agriculture is demonstrated by finds in highland Mexico and in Southeast Asia. Some caves in the Old World continued to be inhabited even after the close of the Stone Age; relics from the Bronze and Iron ages have been found in cave deposits. On occasion, material dating from the time of the Roman Empire has been recovered. The famous Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered in 1947, were preserved in caves.

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