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Cave of Altamira

UNESCO World Heritage Site
Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Replica at ''Museo Arqueológico Nacional'' of Cave of Altamira
Type Cultural
Criteria i, iii
Reference 310
UNESCO region Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1985 (9th Session)
Extensions 2008
Cave of Altamira is located in Spain
Location of Cave of Altamira in Spain.

The Cave of Altamira is a cave in Spain famous for its Upper Paleolithic cave paintings featuring drawings and polychrome rock paintings of wild mammals and human hands. It was the first cave, (but second rock painting twelve years after Archibold Carlleyle discovered in India in 1867-68) in which prehistoric cave paintings were discovered. When the discovery was first made public in 1880, it led to a bitter public controversy between experts which continued into the early 20th century, since many did not believe prehistoric man had the intellectual capacity to produce any kind of artistic expression. The acknowledgment of the authenticity of the paintings, which finally came in 1902, changed the perception of prehistoric human beings.

It is located near the town of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Spain, 30 km west of the city of Santander. The cave with its paintings has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.


  • Description 1
  • Discovery, excavation, skepticisms 2
  • Visitors and replicas 3
  • Cultural impact 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • External links 8


The cave is approximately 300 meters long[1] and consists of a series of twisting passages and chambers. The main passage varies from two to six meters in height. The cave was formed through collapses following early Karst phenomena in the calcerous rock of Mount Vispieres.

Archaeological excavations in the cave floor found rich deposits of artifacts from the Upper Solutrean (c. 18,500 years ago) and Lower Magdalenian (between c. 16,500 and 14,000 years ago). Both periods belong to the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. In the millennia between these two occupations, the cave was evidently inhabited only by wild animals. Human occupants of the site were well-positioned to take advantage of the rich wildlife that grazed in the valleys of the surrounding mountains as well as the marine life available in nearby coastal areas. Around 13,000 years ago a rockfall sealed the cave's entrance, preserving its contents until its eventual discovery, which occurred after a nearby tree fell and disturbed the fallen rocks.

Human occupation was limited to the cave mouth, although paintings were created throughout the length of the cave. The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often diluting these pigments to produce variations in intensity and creating an impression of chiaroscuro. They also exploited the natural contours in 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 (Bison priscus[2]) in different poses, two horses, a large doe, and possibly a wild boar.

Great hall of policromes of Altamira, published by M. Sanz de Sautuola in 1880.

Dated to the Magdalenian occupation, these paintings include abstract shapes in addition to animal subjects. 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. Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain Paleolithic art, but none is as complex or well-populated as Altamira.

Discovery, excavation, skepticisms

Bison in the great hall of polychromes

In 1879, amateur archaeologist

  • Altamira Cave National Museum In Spanish and English
  • The Spanish Cave of Altamira opens - with politics Bradshaw Foundation Article
  • "Les peintures préhistoriques de la grotte d’Altamira", Cartailhac and Breuil founding article (1903), online and analyzed onBibNum [click 'à télécharger' for English version]

External links

  • Curtis, Gregory. The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 1-4000-4348-4)).
  • Guthrie, R. Dale. The Nature of Prehistoric Art. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006 (hardcover, ISBN 0-226-31126-0).
  • McNeill, William H. "Secrets of the Cave Paintings", The New York Review of Books, Vol. 53, No. 16, October 19, 2006.
  • Pike, A. W. G.; Hoffmann, D. L.; Garcia-Diez, M.; Pettitt, P. B.; Alcolea, J.; De Balbin, R.; Gonzalez-Sainz, C.; de las Heras, C.; Lasheras, J. A.; Montes, R.; Zilhao, J. (14 June 2012). "U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain". Science 336 (6087): 1409–1413.  


  1. ^ Ian Chilvers, ed. (2004). "Altamira". The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art (3rd ed.). [Oxford]: Oxford University Press. p. 18.  
  2. ^ Verkaar, E. L. C. (19 March 2004). "Maternal and Paternal Lineages in Cross-Breeding Bovine Species. Has Wisent a Hybrid Origin?". Molecular Biology and Evolution 21 (7): 1165–1170.  
  3. ^ a b Travel Advisory; A Modern Copy Of Ancient Masters, The New York Times, 4 November 2001
  4. ^ Gray, Richard (5 October 2008). "Prehistoric cave paintings took up to 20,000 years to complete". The Daily Telegraph. 
  5. ^ de Bruxelles, Simon (June 15, 2012). "Prehistoric cave art began 10,000 years earlier". The Times. Retrieved 31 December 2012. 
  6. ^ Spain to reopen access to prehistoric cave paintings < Spanish news | Expatica Spain
  7. ^ Visita la Cueva de Altamira
  8. ^ Songs for the Devil and Death | Circle Six


See also

In the Golden Sun game, there is a cave known as: Altmiller Cave, probably based on the Caves of Altamira.

The protagonist in Satyajit Ray's Agantuk was inspired by the charging Bison painting to leave his home and study tribals.

The iconic bison image has been used for the cover of the poetry collection Songs for the Devil and Death by Scottish author Hal Duncan.[8]

The song "Cuevas de Altamira" (Caves of Altamira) appears on the 1978 album "Cuevas de Altamira" by the symphonic progressive rock-folk group Ibio from Cantabria.

The song "The Caves of Altamira" appears on the 1976 album The Royal Scam by jazz-rock band Steely Dan, later covered by soul group Perri.

The Spanish comic character and series Altamiro de la Cueva, created in 1965, are a consequence of the fame of Altamira Cave. The comic series depicts the adventures of a group of prehistoric cavemen, shown as modern people, but dressed in pieces of fur, a bit like the Flintstones.

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

A modern interpretation of a bison from the Altamira cave ceiling, one of the cave's most famous paintings.

Cultural impact

During 2010 there were plans to reopen access to the cave towards the end of that year.[6] In December 2010, however, the Spanish Ministry of Culture decided that the cave would remain closed to the public.[7] This decision was based on advice from a group of experts who had found that the conservation conditions inside the cave had become much more stable since the closure.

As well as the adjacent National Museum and Research Center of Altamira there are reproductions in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain (Madrid), in the Deutsches Museum in Munich (completed 1964) and in Japan (completed 1993).

During the 1960s and 1970s, the paintings were being damaged by the carbon dioxide in the breath of the large number of visitors. Altamira was completely closed to the public in 1977, and reopened to limited access in 1982. Very few visitors were allowed in per day, resulting in a three-year waiting list. A replica cave and museum were built nearby and completed in 2001 by Manuel Franquelo and Sven Nebel, reproducing the cave and its art. The replica allows a more comfortable view of the polychrome paintings of the main hall of the cave, as well as a selection of minor works. It also includes some sculptures of human faces that are not visitable in the real cave.[3]

Reproduction of cave of Altamira in "Deutsches Museum", Munich.

Visitors and replicas

Scientists continue to evaluate the age of the cave art at Altamira. In 2008, researchers using uranium-thorium dating found that the paintings were completed over a period of up to 20,000 years rather than during a comparatively brief period.[4] In 2012, further uranium-thorium dating research was published supporting an older age for portions of the art, including one claviform image at 35,600 years old.[5]

Further excavation work on the cave was done by Hermilio Alcalde del Río between 1902-04, the German Hugo Obermaier between 1924-25 and finally by Joaquín González Echegaray in 1981.

It was not until 1902, when several other findings of prehistoric paintings had served to render the hypothesis of the extreme antiquity of the Altamira paintings less offensive, that the scientific society retracted their opposition to the Spaniards. That year, Emile Cartailhac emphatically admitted his mistake in the famous article, "Mea culpa d'un sceptique", published in the journal L'Anthropologie. Sautuola, having died 14 years earlier, did not live to enjoy his rehabilitation.

Association of the animals in the cave of Altamira, by Leroi-Gourhan.
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