In 2021, cave paintings found in eastern Spain revealed an unbelievably clear image of one of our ancient ancestors climbing a rope ladder to reach a beehive. Now, new analysis of this and similar artwork has allowed archaeologists to understand more about the sophisticated rope-making techniques mastered by these prehistoric societies.
Rope-making is a particularly tough tradition to trace in the archaeological record. The ropes themselves were largely made of perishable materials, so precious few examples of the objects they were used to construct have survived, and we don’t have a lot of evidence of how they were manufactured either.
The clearest artistic representation of rope use found to date in Europe was unearthed in a Spanish cave back in 2021. The startlingly clear image shows a person scurrying up a rope ladder to try to reach a beehive – or, more precisely, the prized honey within – roughly 7,500 years ago.
Describing the scene in a paper at the time, the researchers said, “In it, a climber, with facial traits, climbs up a rope ladder made up of rope loops. This scene shows an advanced use of rope-making techniques as well as in-depth knowledge of climbing techniques.”
Now, led by Manuel Bea of the University of Zaragoza, the team has returned to the incredible find, using it and other examples of similar art to try to piece together as much as possible about the rope-making technologies favored by ancient humans in the region.
Levantine rock art is unique to this time period and this part of Europe, and more than 1,000 sites have so far been recorded. As the authors explain, “It is a naturalistic art with a strong narrative component, in which humans (men, women and even children) and their material culture (a quite diverse toolkit including bow, arrows, quivers, boomerangs and bags, as well as all sorts of ornaments, clothing, hair accessories, etc.) take part in dynamic scenes that today we describe as hunting, war, social performance or gatherings, among others.”
The researchers cataloged a number of rock art scenes that show ropes in some form or other, most of which are to do with climbing. They noted that most of these depictions have been found in only two geographical areas: the mountainous Meastrazgo and Caroig massif of eastern Spain. This phenomenon has been seen before in Levantine rock art, with particular themes being found only in certain regions, which the authors suggest could be evidence of territorial behavior on the part of ancient humans.
Though some of the artworks show people climbing rigid structures like tree trunks, many showed figures climbing flexible materials – and several of these, the authors say, can be clearly interpreted as ropes and rope ladders.
“These flexible systems are depicted with thinner wavy lines, insinuating their plastic nature and adaptability to the shape of the landscape over which they climb,” they write. “The depicted examples are much longer than previous types, some over 1 [meter] long [3.2 feet] (which, given the scale of the drawings, could equal 25 [meters; 82 feet] in real life).”
Creating and safely climbing these rope ladders would have taken a lot of skill and been very time-consuming. They would have had to be fixed and hung from the top, and some of the scenes even show the climber’s gear left at the bottom of the ladder. The most complex ladder design is that depicted in the 2021 scene – a stirrup ladder, with footholds created by knotting the rope. Incredibly, this same technique (albeit with different raw materials) is still used today in alpine climbing.
It's hard to know for sure why our ancestors so prized honey that they would go to the trouble of constructing complex climbing apparatus and making the treacherous ascent to the hive. Bee products are known to have cultural and culinary significance dating back centuries, with depictions of humans seeking out beehives in many other forms of rock art from around the world.
“Honey and beeswax must have had a variety of uses for Levantine societies, becoming so valuable as to invest a good deal of time and effort in making such large ropes, and in depicting this type of scene,” the authors conclude. “They also devised and improved climbing systems enabling them to literally hang over the void.”
The study is published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
[H/T: Heritage Daily]