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The internet and centuries of map-making mean getting to, say, the prehistoric painted caves of France and Spain is child's play. "But imagine a group of hunter-gatherers, returning to an area they had not been to for a long time. How do you find a particular cave, especially if the vegetation has changed and its entrance may be masked?" asks independent archaeologist Paul Bahn.
The answer may be that hunter-gatherers had their own maps. A team of archaeologists have matched etchings made 14,000 years ago on a polished chunk of sandstone in northern Spain to the landscape in which it was found. They claim to have the earliest known map of a region in western Europe - a prehistoric hunting map.
The rock, roughly hand-sized and 14,000 years old, bears a mess of overlapping etchings. It was found in a cave in Navarre on the southern side of the Pyrenees and it took Pilar Utrilla of the University of Zaragoza, Spain, and colleagues the better part of 10 years to disentangle the lines and make sense of them (Journal of Human Evolution, DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2009.05.005).
Clottes believes that instead of connecting the artist to the physical world, they may have acted as a bridge to another, spiritual world. "For these people, their landscape was likely sacred. A map might not have helped them go from one place to another, but instead could have marked the places of very significant sacred places."