Altamira Cave in Spain, photo and description

Altamira Cave

The Sistine Chapel of primitive art is how scientists nicknamed Altamira, the study of the cave has obtained a lot of material from the life of primitive society.

Altamira was discovered by Don Marcelino de Sautuola, a lover of antiquities, who spent his life trying to prove its authenticity and uniqueness. The history of the discovery of Altamira is very unusual.

Count Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and his daughter Maria decided to walk through their land in the province of Cantabria. Examining one of the caves, the girl suddenly cried out: “Daddy, look, there’s a bull!”

The girl’s father, being a passionate lover of antiquity, immediately drew attention to the walls and ceiling of the cave, which indeed depicted animals. After carefully examining it, Sautuola assumed that the cave was more than 14,000 years old.

This was the first such discovery that no one had even thought of. In the 19th century, many scientists were skeptical of the discovery. There was even talk that the count purposely drew the animals and passed them off as ancient drawings. The great minds of the time cried out with glee that ancient man could not have created such images. They called the discovery a “trick of the Spaniards” to draw attention to their country.

But a few years later, rock art and inscriptions were found in another cave on the other side of the Earth. Then a more detailed excavation revealed bones, animal horns, and stone tools. Many such caves were found around the world, and only then the picture began to take shape. Most of the petroglyphs were found in Europe. The reason was that the winters there were really cold, and ancient people spent most of their time in the caves.

After Sautuola’s death the drawings were recognized as authentic. In the same year, a famous archaeologist published an article entitled Skeptic’s Remorse. In it he expressed sympathy for his distrust of Sautuola’s discovery.

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But back to Altamira. The cave is 270 meters long. It consists of double corridors and a large hall. Scientists have proved that for quite a long time animals lived in the cave, and then they were displaced by the first people.

The drawings represent images of various animals: bison, boars, deer, horses. You can also find fingerprints and even whole palms.

The appearance of the animals is splendidly depicted. They are either calm, or preparing to jump, or lazily resting. Each picture carries a certain action. It was drawn in one movement of his hand, without a plan or sketches. The precision of the lines is amazing and makes you wonder how the ancient man was able to recreate such a vivid and accurate image.

One cannot ignore the paints. They were made of natural materials: coal, manganese, ochre, hematite and were diluted with water or animal fat. The images were three-dimensional. This was achieved by using the natural forms of the cave.

Paintings carried a certain magical meaning. Painted animals pierced with spears were believed to attract the luck of the tribe. With the change of generations, the drawings on the walls were repeated. In addition to the animals, it was possible to see the outlines of human bodies and handprints, but scientists have never been able to figure out what they symbolize.

Altamira nowadays

Excavations in the cave were conducted in 1902 – 1904, 1924 – 1925, 1981.

It was also proved that the animals depicted on the walls were created during the Paleolithic period. The discovery of Altamira marked the beginning of the study of rock art of different times. A huge number of similar caves were found later in France, Spain and Scandinavia.

In the 1950s, more than 1,000 people visited Altamira every day.

But from the breath of so many visitors the drawings began to get damp and covered with mold. Therefore in 1977, the cave had to be closed for restoration, because the drawings simply began to disappear from the walls of the cave because of the humidity. The cave was opened only in 1982, reducing the daily flow to 20 people.

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Currently, to get into Altamira is very difficult. Each day you can admire the beauties of no more than 3 people on a special list filled three years in advance.

Altamira Cave

Altamira Cave

The Altamira Cave is a unique collection of rock paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. Unlike the other caves of Cantabria, known for their underground beauty, Altamira attracts above all lovers of archaeology and art. A visit to this place is part of the obligatory cultural program of tourist itineraries, both self-guided and organized by agencies.

View of the cave and paintings

Altamira is a series of double corridors and halls of a total length of 270 meters, the main of them (the so-called Great Plafond) occupies an area of 100 m 2 . The vaults are almost entirely covered with signs, palm prints and drawings of wild animals such as bison, horses and wild boars.

Bisons in the cave

These paintings are polychrome, and natural dyes such as charcoal, ochre, manganese, hematite and mixtures of kaolin clay were used. It is believed that from 2 to 5 centuries passed between the first and the last creation.

Paintings of animals in Altamira

The precision of the lines and proportions amazes all explorers and visitors to Altamira; most of the paintings are executed with one stroke and reflect the movement of the animals. There are practically no static images, many of them are three-dimensional thanks to their location in the convex parts of the cave. It has been noted that when the fire is lit or the light flickers, the paintings begin to shift visually; they do not yield to the Impressionist paintings in terms of the sense of volume.

Discovery and recognition

The history of the discovery, excavation, publication and acceptance by the scientific world of the rock art is quite dramatic. The Altamira Cave was discovered in 1879 by the landowners, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and his daughter, and it was she who drew her father’s attention to the drawings of bulls on the vaults.

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Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola with his daughter

Sautuola was an amateur archaeologist, he attributed the find to the Stone Age and asked for help from the scientific community for a more accurate determination. The only one who responded was the Madrid scholar Juan Vilanova y Piedra, who published his findings in 1880.

The tragedy of the situation was the perfect condition and extraordinary beauty of the images. Altamira was the first cave found with preserved rock art, scientists simply were not ready to change the picture of their world and recognize the ability of ancient people to create such skillful paintings. At the prehistoric congress in Lisbon, Sautoulou was accused of covering the walls of the cave with fake drawings made to order, the brand of forger remained with him until his death.

Paintings in a cave in Spain

Found in 1895 similar caves in France remained undiscovered for a long time, only in 1902 re-excavations in Altamira were able to prove the time of the paintings – the Upper Paleolithic, after which the Sautuola family was finally recognized as the discoverers of the art of this era. The authenticity of the images was confirmed by radiological studies and their approximate age is 16500 years.

Opportunity to visit

Tourists in a cave with murals

Altamira is located in Spain: 5 km. from Santillana del Mar, famous for its Gothic architecture and 30 km. from Santander, the administrative center of Cantabria. The easiest way to get there is by renting a car. Directly in the cave itself ordinary tourists are not allowed, the line of visitors who have received special permission, filled for years ahead.

In 2001, similar to the famous Lascaux Cave, a museum was opened nearby with a maximally precisely recreated exposition of the Great Plafond and the neighboring corridors. Photographs and duplicates of the paintings of Altamira Cave are presented in museums in Munich and Japan; the three-dimensional diorama is in Madrid.

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