Altamira cave drawings
Cave drawings at Altamira.Museo de Altamira/D. Rodríguez

Researchers have discovered four new sets of cave paintings in Cantabria, northern Spain, the oldest of which was made nearly 30,000 years ago – making it one of the earliest known examples of prehistoric art in the world.

The team from the Museum of Prehistory of Cantabria, led by Spanish prehistorian Roberto Ontañón, used cutting-edge imaging techniques to identify the drawings.

Twenty years ago, a speleologist – a scientist who studies caves – had informed archaeologists of the possible existence of ancient paintings in various rock cavities in Cantabria. However, the techniques available at the time were not sufficient to confirm the existence of the art.

The paintings, like much prehistoric artwork, had degraded so much over time that they were difficult to identify with the naked eye. To overcome this, Ontañón and his team used a 3D laser scanning method, which reproduced the artwork on a computer.

"These technologies allow you to detect colors beyond the range of the visible spectrum (infrared to ultraviolet) and, in this way, 'reveal' paintings that at first sight are imperceptible or difficult to
distinguish", Ontañón told IBTimes UK.

The artworks are estimated to have been made between 30,000 and 20,000 years ago, making them older than the famous bison drawings at the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site at nearby Altamira – created around 16,000 years ago – but not as old as the earliest example in the region.

That title goes to the cave drawings at El Castillo, also in Cantabria, which were made more than 40,000 years ago and are arguably the oldest in the world.

Cantabria has some of the highest concentrations of prehistoric art anywhere on Earth. This can be attributed to the fact that the region was a good place to live during glacial periods in the Earth's history, a result of its temperate climate and abundance of wild animals.