Palaeolithic children’s footprints discovered in Spanish cave

The footprints were left by a group of children, aged between six and seven, playing in the cave some time between c. 60,000 and 15,000 years ago.

A recent discovery of the remarkably well-preserved traces of 14 footprints made by children on the floor of the La Garma cave complex in Cantabria, northern Spain, is the latest extraordinary evidence of human behaviour during the Palaeolithic period to be found at the important site.

The La Garma caves are noted for their rich repository of Palaeolithic rock art, which includes 92 depictions of animals and 40 hand stencils, as well as stunning finds of portable art from the Magdalenian age (from c.17,000 to c.11,000 years ago), such as perforated batons and a bovine rib spatula bearing a carving of an ibex.

To protect and celebrate its archaeological significance, La Garma was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

At a press conference chaired by Pablo Zuloaga, the Vice-President of the Government of Cantabria, Roberto Ontañón, the Director of Caves of Cantabria and MUPAC, and Pablo Arias, Professor of Prehistory at the University of Cantabria, it was announced that the Palaeolithic children’s footprints were discovered in a chamber at the La Garma site that had gone unnoticed until now.

Faint traces of children’s footprints were discovered on the Palaeolithic cave floor at La Garma, Cantabria. Photo: © Gobierno de Cantabria.

The entrance to the chamber was obscured due to its elevation 25m above the Lower Gallery, but after following a complex route that led deep into the cave, a team of archaeologists managed to find a way in. Once inside, they observed disturbances to the clay floor, which they initially attributed to animal activity.

On closer inspection, however, they identified a series of 14 footprints measuring around 18cm from heel to toe. This suggests the prints were left by a group of children, aged between six and seven years old, playing in the cave recess at some time during the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic period, between c. 60,000 and c.15,000 years ago.

Due to the fragility of the evidence, analysis has so far been limited to photographic documentation. The next phase in the investigation will utilise photogrammetry, 3D restitution, and laser scanners to produce topographic surveys.

Pablo Zuloaga said the discovery consolidates La Garma’s place as ‘one of the most important sites in the world’ for the study of human behaviour during the Palaeolithic period. He added that the find represents one of the few archaeological examples of the activity of the youngest members of that society.