A Pearl of Prehistoric Spain in Danger of Disappearing: Can the 35,600-year-old Art of Altamira Cave be both Witnessed and Preserved?
The cave located at Altamira was inhabited thousands of years ago and contains remarkable examples of sophisticated art from Prehistory. The first paintings appeared there most probably around 35600 years ago. The exquisite site is often compared to the famous cave of Lascaux, but Altamira tells its own story about the first people of Cantabria.
The Cave’s Use
The cave itself is impressive, with corridors that are over 1000 meters (3280.84 ft.) long. It has a series of chambers and twisting passages, each one of them from two to six meters (6.56-19.69 ft.) high. Archaeological excavations have proven the existence of human settlement inside the cave about 18500 years ago. When did the first humans arrive there? It is unknown, but we can estimate that this place was well known to people for much longer than 35000 years.
Reproduction of the cave ceiling paintings at Altamira Museum. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The site would have been very attractive to the people in the Paleolithic and Old Stone Ages. Those people, whose lives remain mysterious to modern researchers, seemed to spend much of their time searching for food. However, at the same time, they needed a place to live where they were protected from the dangers of wild animals. The location of the Cave of Altamira provided both.
The cave ceased to be in use about 13000 years ago when rock fall sealed the entrance. It was re-opened at the end of the 19th century.
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Reproduction of a bison of the cave of Altamira at the Altamira Museum and Reseasrch Center. (Public Domain)
Dating the Paintings
The cave won fame due to its remarkable wall paintings. The artists who made them used ochre, hematite, and charcoal to draw the images that represent bison, horses, boar, and an impressive doe. The paintings, dated to the Magdalenian occupation (c. 16500 – 14000 years ago) also show animals, mostly horses, and goats. It also consists of the remarkable handprints that perhaps belong to the artists who made them. The paintings are so well pigmented that it is hard to believe that they were made such a long time ago.
Scientists still discuss the dating of the paintings from the cave, therefore, it is necessary to note that the dates presented in this article are the ones that are generally believed to be the most accurate. Although researchers have tried to solve this problem during the last few decades, new technologies are necessary to be more precise about the exact period of the paintings’ creation.
There is a huge controversy surrounding the paintings from the cave. When in 1879 Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola explored and excavated the cave, people didn't know about the art. The cave he explored was the first one in Europe where the remarkable Paleolithic paintings were discovered. Due to this fact, he was accused of creating them in the company of his daughter. When the girl entered the cave for the first time, she was perhaps about eight years old. Although future examinations proved that the painted ceiling of the cave is dated back to the Paleolithic period, during the lifetime of Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, the amateur researcher suffered quite a lot due to the suggestions that he had fabricated the honest discovery he made.
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Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola (1831-1888), archaeologist and prehistorian, discovered the Altamira Cave. (Public Domain)
In 1880, Juan Vilanova y Piera and Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola published the results of his research but they had to wait another twenty years for recognition, which only came once other similarly decorated caves had been discovered and analyzed.
Émile Cartailhac, one of the scientific leaders who initially rejected Sanz de Sautuola’s claims. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Searching for a Golden Solution
The 1960s and 1970s brought deterioration of the paintings by carbon dioxide caused by the breath of visitors. The cave was closed to the public in 1977 and reopened five years later. However, this time officials decided to put a limitation on the number of visitors.
It would be desirable for the remarkable paintings of Altamira to be a tourist attraction. Understandably thousands of people would like to see it. Sadly, the warmth of our bodies, the air we exhale and other activities inside the cave are very dangerous to the fragile heritage. If too many people enter the cave, the wall paintings may be completely erased forever.
In the case of the Lascaux cave, the situation was solved in a very radical way. The researchers decided to protect it even if tourism suffers. As New York Times quoted:
''Muriel Mauriac, the curator of Lascaux, said that “we feel our cave is much too fragile to think beyond strict conservation, like for an old lady who is recovering from an illness.” She said she was following developments at Altamira. “I trust the Spanish authorities will ultimately take the right decision,” she said. Mr. Lasheras also noted that “the caves that have been discovered in the last 40 years have not been opened to the public.” Before that, he added, nobody really considered the damage that visitors could inflict on a cave, just as “nobody worried about putting a glass cover on the Mona Lisa.”
The only difference between visiting the original cave and its replica, Mr. Lasheras said, was emotional, something akin to a “cultural conditioning reflex” that people feel when they know that they are looking at prehistoric art rather than a modern copy.
“It is the kind of difference in emotions that we might feel when we look at a painting of Rembrandt or the sunflowers of van Gogh but are then told that the paintings are in fact fakes,” he said.''
The Spanish officials try to protect the site, as does UNESCO, which accepted the cave as a World Heritage Site. Moreover, to allow people to enjoy the beauty of the art made in the Prehistoric era, museums in Madrid, Germany, and Japan offer exhibitions with reproductions of paintings at Altamira. The museum in Altamira consists of a collection of artifacts discovered in the cave and a presentation of the paintings.
Top Image: Bison from Magdalenian occupation of Altamira Cave. In black charcoal, c. 16500 – 14000 years ago. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0
Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain, available at:
Cave of Altamira, available at:
Back to the Cave of Altamira in Spain, Still Controversial By Raphael Minder, available at: