The Cave of Altamira – prehistoric art

by Deborah Cater
Famous bison painting in the Cave of Altamira

The Altamira Cave is unique and its cave paintings are considered among the most important in the world. A tour includes an extremely detailed reconstruction of the original cave in the Altamira National Museum and Visitor Centre. This ensures the original cave is preserved.

The Neocave and museum are in Santillana del Mar, around 35 kilometres from Santander.

The Cave of Altamira is renowned for prehistoric parietal cave art. It features charcoal drawings and polychrome paintings of contemporary local fauna and human hands. Modesto Cubillas discovered the site in 1868.  Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola accompanied Cubillas in 1875 and recognised some of the lines which at the time were not considered to be created by humans.

First prehistoric paintings discovery in Europe

Altamira’s fame stems from the fact that its paintings were the first European cave paintings for which a prehistoric origin was suggested and promoted. The earliest paintings were applied during the Upper Paleolithic, around 36,000 years ago.

Sautuola published his research with the support of Juan de Vilanova y Piera in 1880. Initially it received public acclaim. However, it soon led to controversy among experts. Some of the experts rejected the prehistoric origin of the paintings on the grounds that prehistoric human beings lacked sufficient ability for abstract thought.

The controversy continued until 1902, when there were sufficient reports of similar findings of prehistoric paintings in the Franco-Cantabrian region. The evidence could no longer be rejected.

In 1985 was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as a key location of the Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain.

The cave is not open to visitors, for conservation reasons, but there are replicas of a section at the site.

Read more: Prehistoric human presence found in caves in Málaga

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Created with charcoal and ochre

Humans only occupied the cave mouth; however, paintings are along the length of the cave. The artists used charcoal and ochre or hematite to create the images. These pigments were  often diluted to produce different intensities of colour.  

The artists also used the natural contours of the cave walls to give their subjects a three-dimensional effect. The Polychrome Ceiling is the most impressive feature of the cave, depicting a herd of extinct steppe bison in different poses, two horses, a large doe, and possibly a wild boar.

Abstract shapes

In addition to the animals, these paintings include abstract shapes. Solutrean paintings include images of horses and goats, as well as handprints that were created when artists placed their hands on the cave wall and blew pigment over them to leave a negative image.

As the paintings were of such high artistic quality, and in an exceptional state of conservation, Sautuola was accused of forgery. He could not initially answer why there were no soot marks on the walls and ceilings of the cave.

Later, Sautuola found out the artist could have used marrow fat as oil for the lamp. This would produce much less soot than any other combustibles.

Images popular in Spanish culture

Some of the polychrome paintings at Altamira Cave are well known in Spanish popular culture.

The logo of the autonomous government of Cantabria to promote tourism to the region is based on one of the bisons in this cave.

Bisonte (Spanish for “bison”), a Spanish cigarette brand of the 20th century, also used a Paleolithic style bison figure along with its logo.

Related post: Cueva del Tesoro, the treasure cave on the coast of Málaga

 

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