Cave of Altamira
Window to Prehistoric Artistry
Imagine life 30,000 years ago. It wasn’t just hunting and survival; there was art too. The cave paintings at Altamira are proof of this ancient creativity.
In northern Spain, the cave of Altamira stands as a window into the Paleolithic era. Within, you’ll find not just stone tools and bone carvings, but an astonishing gallery of paintings. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a testament to early human expression.
Great hall of polychromes of Altamira, published by M. Sanz de Sautuola in 1880
A rockfall sealed the cave about 13,000 years ago, hiding its secrets until 1868, when a hunter stumbled upon it. Soon after, an amateur archaeologist, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, explored the cave. By 1879, his excavations had revealed animal bones and ancient tools.
During a late summer exploration, a youthful pair of eyes made a discovery. Marcelino’s eight-year-old daughter, Maria, spotted bison paintings on a chamber ceiling. When Sanz de Sautuola shared his discovery in 1880, many doubted him, labeling the artworks as fakes. However, as the years passed and more such art surfaced in the region, skeptics accepted the cave’s authentic treasures.
Spanning 971 feet (296 meters), the Altamira cave tells tales of two significant Paleolithic cultures: the Solutrean, from around 21,000 to 17,000 years ago, and the Magdalenian, from 17,000 to 11,000 years ago. These cultures represent the zenith of the Upper Paleolithic era, famed for their craftsmanship and art.
Magdalenian polychrome bison
Findings suggest the paintings were created over a span of 20,000 years, with a gap of 10,000 years between some. This vast timeline explains the cave’s diverse art. The highlights? 25 vivid paintings of bison, deer, and horses, with one deer stretching beyond 6.5 feet (2 meters). The artists used charcoal for sleek black outlines and crushed hematite for the rich red ochre fillings. By the 21st century, radiocarbon dating methods revealed that the ceiling paintings were between 14,820 and 13,130 years old.
Bison on the roof of the pit
The cave also holds more ancient masterpieces. There are handprints, both bold and shadowed. Unique “masks,” crafted by drawing faces around the cave’s natural lumps and bumps. This inventive use of the cave’s 3D texture is a recurring theme in Altamira’s ancient gallery.
The exact purpose behind these cave paintings remains a mystery. Yet, their very existence suggests these ancient people had time beyond mere survival. Some scholars theorize that these images played a role in sacred rituals. Perhaps a shaman entered the cave, going into a trance, aiming to connect with the spirit world.
Today, the cave of Altamira remains off-limits to visitors to protect its ancient treasures. Originally, the sealed entrance maintained a stable environment, preserving the art inside. But upon discovery, outside air began to seep in, altering the cave’s humidity and temperature. The surge of 20th-century tourists and infrastructural additions to accommodate them further threatened the paintings. It’s a reminder that while discovery illuminates, preservation ensures the stories live on.
The Altamira cave in Spain offers a glimpse into life 30,000 years ago, showcasing tools and exquisite ancient paintings. Discovered in 1868 and explored by amateur archaeologist Sanz de Sautuola, the cave reveals artworks spanning 20,000 years, from bison paintings to unique 3D “masks.” While its exact purpose remains a mystery, it underscores that our ancestors weren’t just surviving but thriving artistically. To protect this prehistoric marvel, the cave is now closed to the public.
Words of wisdom
“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” ―Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.” ―Vincent Van Gogh
“Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.” ―Bruce Lee
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” ―Jack London