The Altamira Cave in Spain. Rock Art of the Stone Age.

Cave of Altamira and rock paintings of the Stone Age

The Altamira Cave (original Cueva de Altamira) is one of the very few ancient caves with well preserved Stone Age rock art. The paintings are so realistic that at first they were even mistaken for fakes. In addition, they are polychrome, i.e. colored. This adds to their uniqueness.

Where is it

Altamira Cave lies 2 km south-west of the town of Santillana del Mar in northern Spain. The nearest major cities are Torrelavega (7 km) and Santander (28 km). Geographical coordinates 43.377499, -4.122480

General information about the cave

The cave entrance is located in a small limestone hill at an altitude of 156 meters above sea level. The temperature inside the cave is about 14 ° C. Humidity ranges from 94 to 97%. And these figures are virtually unchanged throughout the year.

The cave consists of several passages and grottos. The total length of 290 meters. Currently, there are several zones of the cave. The most significant have their own names.

Immediately at the entrance is the “vestibule”.

Next is the most interesting “Great Hall of Polychromes. Its length is 18 meters. The vaults are 2 to 6 meters high. There are at least 16 clear images. Most of them are bison. The animals are depicted in different positions. They are standing, lying down or in motion. This is the most impressive part of the cave. The ceiling with an area of 100 m 2 is completely covered by the color pictures of the animals.

Cave of Altamira

The images range in size from 1.4 to 1.8 meters. Besides the bison there are also engravings of horses, deer, and wild boar. The ceiling in the Great Hall is called by scientists “the Sistine Chapel of the Stone Age.

An interesting fact – the same majestic name archaeologists refer to the famous primitive drawings of the Cave of Lascaux in France.

“Great Hall of incomprehensible drawings” – in this part of the cave you can see abstract drawings. Their purpose is not yet known.

Paintings in Altamira Cave

Then comes the Gallery, in which drawings known as “macaroons” are found.

After the Gallery follows the Black Buffalo Room. A large black bison or bison is painted here, as well as a horse and bull.

Black buffalo room

Black Bison Room.

“Sala de la Hoya.” This is the last large room. It ends with a narrow gallery called Horse Tail. Here are drawings measuring 30-50 cm.

Who really discovered Altamira Cave

The entrance to the cave was found in 1868 by local hunter Modest Cubillas Peras. His dog got stuck in the rocks while chasing his prey. The hunter had to rescue his four-legged friend. That’s when he noticed the entrance to the cave. But he didn’t pay much attention to it. The neighborhood has a karst terrain, and there are a lot of caves.

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Modesto mentioned his discovery to Count Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who owned the land.

Sautuola was an active fan of archaeology, but he too paid no attention to the discovery of another cave. It was not until 1876 that the count decided to look into the cave. However, he did not go far and lost interest in it.

Visiting the archaeological exposition of the World’s Fair in Paris in 1878, Marcelino remembered that he had an unexplored cave.

In 1879, taking his 9-year-old daughter Mary with him, the count went to the cave, hoping to find at least some ancient artifacts. On the walls he saw some signs and repeating black stripes. But his daughter, on the other hand, raised her head and found the most real paintings on the ceiling of the cave. The child’s words “Look, Daddy, oxen!” were actually the discovery of a new historical site with rock art. Therefore, we believe that it was Maria Sanz de Sautuola who discovered the cave, or rather the paintings in Altamira Cave.

A copy of Altamira Cave paintings

A copy of the ceiling of the Great Hall

Scientific disputes

Marcelino was very enthusiastic about the discovery. He invited the archaeologist Juan Villanova y Pierre. Together they examined and described the drawings of the cave. In 1880 they published a small pamphlet dedicated to the discovery. The joint work presented all the results of the research. They attributed the drawings to the late Paleolithic era.

However, the scientific community received the event coolly. Many scientists accused Sautuola of faking the images. Arguments boiled down to the fact that the paintings were preserved in excellent condition. And the colored rock paintings were perceived as fakes at the time.

Paintings in Altamira Cave

Unfortunately, the recognition and fame of the discoverer did not come to Sautuola until after his death. He died in 1888. A few years later similar drawings were found in other caves. Thus the scientific world recognized the error and confirmed the authenticity of the Altamira cave paintings.

Emile Cartagliak (one of the ardent opponents of the authenticity of the Altamira paintings) after studying the cave in 1902, wrote an article in the scientific journal L’Antropologie. It was called La grotte d’Altamira. Mea culpa d’un sceptique, literally “The Cave of Altamira, My Fault of a Skeptic”. In it he completely changed his opinion of the cave. This article was a de facto recognition of the authenticity of Altamira’s paintings.

Altamira Cave rock art

Since 1985, the cave is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

An interesting fact is that on April 1, 2016, the movie “Altamira” starring Antonio Banderas was released. The film tells the story of the discovery of the cave and the problems of its acceptance by the scientific world.

Age of the drawings

Most of the rock paintings belong to the Madeleine and Solturean cultures. But there are some drawings that are attributed to the Gravette and early Orignac cultures. According to scientists, the cave itself has been used by man for at least 22000 years (that is, the period 35600 – 13000 years ago). This time belongs to the late Paleolithic period.

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About 13,000 years ago a landslide sealed the entrance to the cave. This allowed priceless paintings of antiquity to be preserved.

How Primitive Man Painted

The rock paintings of Altamira Cave are made with charcoal, yellow-red ochre, hematite and other natural colors.

The technique of drawing is interesting. Ancient painters painted not only with fingers, but also with special devices. Most likely, they were primitive brushes, sticks or pieces of leather.

Protrusions and depressions on the ceiling and walls were skillfully used by artists to give a natural volume to future drawings. This is probably the first 3D effect in the history of mankind.

The drawings in the cave are characterized by clear, elaborate lines. They are drawn literally in one movement without tearing away from the surface. Most of the drawings are executed with photographic precision.

Scientists are still arguing about the purpose of the drawings. The main versions boil down to a prehistoric religion. It is possible that by making these pictures, the ancient people performed a ritual of fertility or successful hunting. It is not excluded that people simply painted ordinary scenes from their everyday life.

Altamira Cave

Altamira Cave in tourism

Initially, the original cave began to attract many visitors. And not only scientists, but also tourists. In the 1960s and 70s, up to 1,500 people visited the cave every day. In 1973, 174,000 people visited it.

Naturally this affected the internal microclimate. The temperature and humidity began to change. As a result, mold appeared on the vaults of the cave.

In 1977, the cave was closed. It was reopened only 5 years later, but greatly restricted the number of visits. Since 1982, no more than 20 people a day could visit this unique place.

Those wishing to visit the cave was much more. Signing up for a visit stretched for several months. Despite the restrictions, the rock art began to deteriorate again.

Altamira cave rock paintings

Not all of the paintings were well preserved.

In 2002, the cave was closed again for renovation.

Interesting fact – In 2015, the Spanish Mint issued a 2 euro coin dedicated to the Altamira Cave. It depicts a bison.

A copy of the Altamira Cave

In 2001, the National Museum and Research Center of Altamira was built near the cave in order to show the Stone Age paintings to all comers.

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The main feature of the museum was an exact replica of the Great Hall of the cave. It reproduces the drawings of the original cave. In a separate exhibit are copies of drawings from other parts of the cave. The replica of the cave painting was done by Pedro Saura and Matilda Muzviz from the University of Madrid. The artists used the same colors, materials, and techniques typical of the original drawings.

A replica of Altamira Cave

Creating a replica of the Altimar Cave

In the city of Santander there is also a museum, in the exposition of which there are drawings of Altamira Cave. In addition, there are such copies in museums in Germany and Japan.

A replica of Altamira drawings

Copies of the Altamira Cave rock art

How to get to Altamira Cave

Since 2015, only 5 people per week can get into the original cave. There are no lines or sign-ups. There is a regular raffle on Fridays among all visitors to the Altamira Museum.

There is a 37-minute guided tour on Fridays for the winners.

For more information on museum visit times, costs and transportation routes, visit the Official Site of the attraction.

Altamira Cave – Stone Age Sistine Chapel

One of the best known Paleolithic caves in the world is located in the north of Spain, 30 km from the city of Santander. Altamira – the name of the cave, which was discovered by an amateur Spanish archaeologist at the end of the 19th century. Since 1985, the cave with its truly artistic paintings inside is included in the list of World Heritage of UNESCO. By the way, it is now believed that the techniques discovered by impressionist painters were already known to our distant ancestors, and the paintings of Altamira Cave clearly confirm this.

Altamira Cave

Length of the cave: 270 m

Main hall: 18 meters long and 2 to 6 meters high

The entrance: 158 meters above sea level

Age of the drawings: 35,000 to 13,000 years BC

How a “scientific scam” turned out to be a great discovery

Altamira Cave

The cave is located on land that formerly belonged to Count Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. It is he who is considered the man who discovered the amazing drawings on the vaults of the cave. Although, in fact, the discovery belongs to his daughter Maria, who was 9 years old at the time, who, upon entering the cave, looked up and pointed her father to the colorful images of animals.

But contemporaries only accused the count of publicizing unreliable information and of falsifying the drawings. They had long refuted the theory that the cave paintings belonged to the Stone Age. Scientists could not believe that ancient people were so evolved that they could create such masterpieces in complete darkness inside the cave.

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Only after Marcelino’s death was his discovery recognized as great. Similar rock paintings have been found in different parts of Europe and Asia. The most famous places with ancient drawings: the Lascaux Cave in France (1940), the Kapova Cave in the Urals (1959), the Del Romito Grotto in Italy (1961), the Ruffignac Cave in France (1956), the Huit-Cenker Agui Cave in western Mongolia (1972), and others.

Style of Paleolithic artists

rock paintings rock paintings

The most curious place in the cave is the ceiling of one of its spaces, an area of 100 square meters. The most curious place in the cave is the ceiling of one of its spaces, 100 sq.m., covered with the images of more than 20 animals: bulls, deer, horses, buffalos…The paintings are completed with the fragments on the walls.

The drawings show the steady hand of the artist, who put the outlines of animals in a single line, without corrections. The master used natural colors such as charcoal, ochre, hematite and others. But from such a small selection of colors turned out amazingly diverse shades. By the way, a shell was found in the cave, which, apparently, was used as a palette by the ancient artists.

The drawings are located on the relief surface so that they seem three-dimensional. And in the light of the fire, with shadows running across the walls and ceiling, it really feels like the animals are moving!

Visiting the cave: a lucky ticket

Altamira Cave

The peak of attendance at the cave was in the 1960s and 1970s, when up to 1,500 visitors came inside every day. About such crowds of people the temperature in the cave began to change, the air became more humid and mold began to appear on the painted stone. The cave had to close for restoration in 1977. In 1982 it reopened, but limited the number of visitors to 20 people a day. Immediately there were queues to enter the cave, scheduled for many months in advance. But even this did not save the cave paintings, which continued to slowly lose their color and texture. In 2002, Altamira Cave was closed for the second time.

On March 26, 2015, it was decided to introduce a special regime for visiting the cave. Now once a week an entrance is organized for five people, with a special escort and under strict control in terms of lighting of the space. The elaborate itinerary of 37 minutes captures all the most interesting places in the cave and gives the opportunity to see all the details.

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Altamira Cave

Five lucky people are chosen by lot from among the visitors to the Altamira Cave Museum who went there on the day designated for the tour of the cave itself. Everyone who purchased a ticket to the museum that day before 10:30 a.m. participates in the selection process. Winners are announced in the museum lobby at 10:40.

To get inside the cave, you must be over the age of 16 and accept the terms of admission along with the winning ticket. Tours of the cave are now offered every Friday. Possible changes in the schedule are published in advance on the museum website:

The Cave Museum: free access to copies of the drawings

Altamira Cave Museum

The atmosphere of the Altamira Cave and the exact reproductions of the paintings are recreated in the museum, which is accessible to all.

The permanent exhibition of the museum is called “The Times of Altamira”. It tells how the cave looked like in the Stone Age, when the drawings on its walls were created. The museum halls acquaint visitors with the art and traditions of the ancient tribes that inhabited Europe during the Upper Paleolithic period. Altamira rock paintings are copied accurately and in three-dimensional representation, so that everyone can feel inside the cave itself and devote a lot of time to looking at the drawings.

The museum regularly holds workshops for children, during which they can transform themselves into our ancestors – deer hunters. Drawing lessons are held in a separate area. And sometimes the museum organizes classical music concerts for the whole family. The schedule of events is updated on the website every month:

How to get to the museum

Altamira Cave Museum

The museum is located in the region of Cantabria, in the town of Santillana del Mar.

There is free secure parking for cars and buses on the museum grounds. Parking is open on museum business days at 9:30.

Address: Avda. Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola s/n, Santillana del Mar (Cantabria)

Opening hours: Tuesday to Saturday 9:30 to 20:00, Sundays and holidays 9:30 to 15:00 (May to October), Tuesday to Saturday 9:30 to 18:00, Sundays and holidays 9:30 to 15:00 (November to April).

Entrance fee: 3€, free on Saturdays after 14:00 and Sundays all day.

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Tags: cantabria, museum, cave, altamira, cave paintings, north of spain, ancient world, stone age

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