Altamira Cave – Sistine Chapel of the Stone Age

Altamira Cave

The Altamira Cave is a unique cave in Spain which has preserved colorful wall paintings from the late Paleolithic period. The cave is located near the town of Santillana del Mar, in the province of Cantabria, in the north of the country. In 1985 it was awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO.

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Video: Altamira Cave

General Information

The colorful paintings on the vaults and walls of the Altamira Cave were made 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. They belong to the so-called Madeleine culture, which was distributed on the territory of modern Germany, France, Belgium, Spain and Switzerland. People who lived at that time knew how to work bones, make flint chisels and tips, and hunt mammoths, wild horses and reindeer, which were found in Europe at the end of the Ice Age.

The Altamira Cave stretches 270 m and consists of twin corridors and halls. The largest room is 18 m long and has a ceiling height of 2 to 6 m. The petroglyphs can be seen not only in the main hall, but also in the corridors and in other halls. The perfectly preserved polychrome paintings amaze tourists and professional artists. Bison, horses, boars, and the outlines of the palms of prehistoric artists can be seen on the walls of the cave. The paint layer is applied with the help of natural dyes – ochre, charcoal, kaolin, manganese and hematite. Primitive people painted in the Altamira Cave with their hands and special devices. The Spanish paintings were reminiscent of the cave paintings found in Northern Italy and Scandinavia.

Today the Altamira Cave is known all over the world. Scientists have not yet come to a consensus on how many artists were involved in the creation of the drawings. Also, it is not known if the images were the realization of a single plan, or if the animal figures in the cave accumulated gradually from generation to generation.

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How was the Altamira Cave discovered

The land where Altamira Cave is located was owned by the Spaniard Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. He was a jurist, a passionate amateur archaeologist, and also interested in geology and biology. The people who lived around knew about the existence of a large underground cavity, but did not attach much importance to it. Since ancient times, shepherds waited for rain here, and hunters stayed for the night. The cave became famous only in 1868 when the hunter Modesto Cubillas Pérez visited it. His dog got stuck in a crevasse and his master, helping the dog to get out, found the grassy entrance leading under the ground.

Diorama at the Museum of Archaeology of Catalonia in Barcelona

Ten years later, Sautuola visited the World’s Fair in Paris and became acquainted with collections of Stone Age artifacts there. Returning home, he began to explore the cave and found implements of primitive people in it. In 1879, the landowner’s 9-year-old daughter, Maria, visited the cave. She saw some colorful spots on the stone vault, resembling bulls. The girl called her father and showed him pictures of bison.

Sautuola correctly suggested that the drawings might have been made by people who lived in the Stone Age. The archaeologist Juan Vilanova y Piedra from the University of Madrid, who was the author of the book “The Origin, Nature and Age of Man,” took part in further studies of the Altamira Cave. The results of their work were published by the scientists in 1880.

However, public recognition did not come to them. French archaeologists were categorically unwilling to believe in the existence of perfectly preserved ancient rock art in the Altamira Cave. They opposed Sautuola and Vilanova y Pierre at a prehistoric congress held in Lisbon in 1880 and accused them of forgery. Sautuola suffered greatly from the injustice and died eight years later with the stigma of being a fraud.

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In 1895, similar rock art was discovered in France. The Spanish archaeologist was proved right in 1902, during new excavations. The famous French archaeologist Emile Cartagliak, considered a fierce critic of Sautuola, changed his mind and publicly acknowledged the error. Sautuola and his daughter Mary were then declared the first to discover Stone Age art.

Photos of the Altamira Cave rock art

What you can see in Altamira Cave

The large plafond of Altamira Cave has an area of about 100 m² and is entirely covered with colorful images. It has reduced drawings of bison and life-size images of animals. It is noteworthy that the primitive artists created them with the relief in mind. They painted on the convexity of the ceiling, so the images seem three-dimensional.

Stalactites and stalagmites in Altamira Cave

Everyone who has been to Altamira Cave is amazed by the precise technique of the drawings. The lines are drawn with a steady hand and have no corrections. The animal figures look very dynamic, and the movements and poses are conveyed with maximum realism. It is also curious that the ancient painters used the same techniques, which many centuries later were “discovered” in painting, thanks to the Impressionists. According to researchers, all the paintings in the cave were created between 200 and 500 years, but it remains unknown what kind of rituals people performed here.

These days, access to the unique cave is restricted. This is done to preserve the rock carvings for posterity. A day inside can visit only a few people with a special pass, so the queue of those wishing to see the miracle of the Altamira Cave is painted 3 years in advance.

Nevertheless, many travelers come to the cave area just to be near it. Near the entrance is a simple stone monument dedicated to Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola.

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Exact copies of the cave paintings are on public display at the Museum of Ancient History and Archaeology in the seaside town of Santander, 30 km from Altamira Cave. The museum welcomes visitors on all days except Mondays. It is open: from May to October from 9.30 to 20.00, from November to April from 9.30 to 18.00. On Sundays and holidays the exhibition closes at 15.00.

How to get there

From Russia you can fly to Santander with a connection in London or Madrid. The nearest airport is situated 18 km away, at Mallano. From the airport one may take an electric train, a regular bus or a cab to Santander. Santander is a major seaport, so a ferry service runs three times a week. From English Plymouth to Santander takes a day. From the city you can take a cab to Altamira Cave.

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