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8 August 2009
Engraved map from 14,000 years ago discovered in Spain

A stone tablet found in a cave in Abauntz (Navarra, northern Spain) - which was traditionally thought to be the home of  the 'lamias' or mythological bird-footed nymphs - is believed to contain the earliest known representation of a landscape. The complex etchings were engraved on a hand-sized rock 13,660 years ago, probably by Magdalenian hunter-gatherers. Engravings on the stone, which measures less than 7x5 inches, and is less than an inch thick, appear to depict mountains, meandering rivers and areas of good foraging and hunting.
     A team from the University of Zaragoza spent 15 years deciphering the etched lines and squiggles after unearthing the artefact during excavation of the cave in 1993. "We can say with certainty that it is a sketch, a map of the surrounding area," said Pilar Utrilla, who led the research team. "Whoever made it sought to capture in stone the flow of the watercourses, the mountains outside the cave and the animals found in the area. The landscape depicted corresponds exactly to the surrounding geography," she said. "Complete with herds of ibex marked on one of the mountains visible from the cave itself."
     The research, which is published in the latest edition of the Journal of Human Evolution, furthers understanding of early modern human capacities of spatial awareness, planning and organised hunting. "We can't be sure what was intended in the making of the tablet but it was clearly important to those who populated the cave 13,660 years ago," said Ms Utrilla. "Maybe it was to record areas rich in mushrooms, birds' eggs, or flint used for making tools." The researchers believe it may also have been used as a storytelling device or to plan a hunting expedition. "Nothing like this has been discovered elsewhere in western Europe," she said.
     The study has excited prehistoric archaeologists such as Lawrence Straus from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "This is a pretty spectacular find," he said. "It may give us a glimpse into the ways in which people navigated and explained their territories." However, other experts disagree with the map interpretation. Jill Cook, head of the prehistory division at the British Museum said it was a 'brave' theory but it was unlikely hunters would need maps during this period. "Multiple lines positioned over animal figures is not unusual in slabs of this period," she said. "We haven't traditionally considered them to be maps. Their intimacy and knowledge of the landscape, including the location of individual trees and plants, would be such that maps would be less vital to them."
     Only one older map has been found in Europe in Pavlov in the Czech Republic. This 25,000-year-old rock depicts a mountain, river and valleys from the region. It was not until 600 BCE that the first known city map was drawn of Babylon on clay. It was found in Sippar, southern Iraq.

Sources: Telegraph.co.uk, Mail Online, Irish Sun (6 August 2009)

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