The Cave of Altamira is one of the most significant sites in the world for understanding prehistoric human society. Why is the cave so important?
The Altamira Cave was occupied for thousands of years during the Paleolithic Era. The cave’s paintings, mostly of bison, were created about 14,000 years ago, making them among the oldest surviving examples of human art in the world.
For more on Altamira and why it is so remarkable, read on.
In 1868, Modesto Cubillas was hunting west of Santander in the Cantabria region of Spain. He discovered a cave that showed traces of prehistoric humans and informed Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, a local nobleman.
It took de Sautuola eight years to visit the cave but in 1875, he finally did so. He recognized that it was potentially a hugely significant archaeological site.
In 1879, de Sautuola excavated the cave’s floor and discovered prehistoric stone tools and animal bones. It was only when he visited the cave with Maria, his eight-year-old daughter, that the most remarkable feature of the cave became apparent.
Maria noticed that there were bison painted on the ceiling in part of the cave. Marcelino de Sautuola believed that the paintings and tools were prehistoric and shared his findings with the world in 1880.
The discoveries were initially viewed with skepticism, and prehistorians expressed their belief that the paintings in particular were forgeries. At the time, the majority of prehistoric cave studies were performed in France.
Those scholars rejected Altamira as the paintings did not resemble those that they had studied in France. Over the following decades, this attitude shifted and by the early 1900s, they were widely accepted as being genuine prehistoric artworks.
Altamira proved a fascinating site due to the different levels that were excavated. Each layer provided archaeological finds from different Paleolithic periods.
At 296 meters long, the Altamira cave was deep enough for an entire prehistoric community to live within. The earliest remains found within its walls potentially date back more than 20,000 years ago.
Evidence suggests that the cave was inhabited for thousands of years, meaning that there were traces of many generations of people left within its walls. Part of the cave’s entrance has collapsed, meaning that some remains were exposed to the outside world at some point in the cave’s history.
Examples of engraved animals were discovered and dated at approximately 15,000 years old, proof that humans were already expressing themselves artistically by this time. The cave paintings are in a separate, smaller chamber, measuring about 18 by 9 meters.
The painted ceiling is not particularly high, measuring between 1.2 and 2.7 meters. This was beneficial in that people could easily reach to paint, but also had the disadvantage that they had to squat down in order to work.
In many cases, there was preparation work performed on the stone before it was painted. The cave’s bison are its most famous paintings and these were usually engraved into the stone before being painted later.
In addition to bison, horses and a doe have been discovered on the cave’s ceiling. There are also handprints and stencils, as well as other prehistoric symbols.
The artists usually worked in red and black paints, made primarily of charcoal. In order to make the paintings stand out more, they were often painted onto bumps and ridges in such a way that they would appear partly 3D.
When the cave’s paints were radiocarbon dated, the bison paintings were placed at approximately 14,000 years old. This makes them among the oldest human works of art in the world.
The Altamira Cave was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. A number of other caves from the Paleolithic age were added to the listing, which is now described as “Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain”.
Today, the cave site is a popular tourist attraction but the cave itself is generally off-limits to the general public. Instead, there is a replica cave, complete with replica paintings, that the public can visit.
Historically, the cave was open to the general public but preserving the cave’s art was considered the top priority. Instead, a group of five visitors to the museum is selected weekly and given special clothing to wear for a tour of the actual cave. This is to protect the original cave and its art, which is priceless.