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. Its special relevance comes from the fact that it was the first cave 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, as many of them did not believe prehistoric man had the intellectual capacity to produce any kind of artistic expression.
The acknowledgement of the authenticity of the paintings, which finally came in 1902, changed forever 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.
The cave is 270 meters long 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 karstic 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 Magdalenean (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.
Discovery, Excavation, Scepticisms:
In 1879, amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola was led by his twelve year-old daughter to discover the cave's drawings. The cave was excavated by Sautuola and archaeologist Juan Vilanova y Piera from the University of Madrid, resulting in a much acclaimed publication in 1880 which interpreted the paintings as Paleolithic in origin. The French specialists, led by Gabriel de Mortillet and Emile Cartailhac, were particularly adamant in rejecting the hypothesis of Sautuola and Piera, and their findings were loudly ridiculed at the 1880 Prehistorical Congress in Lisbon.
Due to the supreme artistic quality, and the exceptional state of conservation of the paintings, Sautuola was even accused of forgery. A fellow countryman maintained that the paintings had been produced by a contemporary artist, on Sautuola's orders. 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.
Further excavation work on the cave was done by Hermilio Alcalde del Río in 1902-04, the German Hugo Obermaier in 1924-25 and finally by Joaquín González Echegaray in 1981. Scientists continue to evaluate the age of the cave artwork. In 2008, scientists utilizing Uranium-thorium dating estimate parts of the artworks are between 25,000 and 35,000 years old. There are also recent discoveries that suggest some of the paintings were completed over thousands of years, not just by individual artists in their own lifetime.
Visitors and Replicas:
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. 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 2010 there were plans to reopen access to the cave towards the end of that year. In December 2010 however, the Spanish Ministry of Culture decided that the cave would remain closed to the public. This decision was based on the advice from a group of experts who had found that the conservation conditions inside the cave had become much more stable since the closure.
Several painters were influenced by the Altamira cave paintings. Picasso is often quoted as having declared "after Altamira, all is decadence"; however, no source exists for this quote and there is no record of him ever visiting Altamira or any prehistoric cave. 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 brand of cigarettes of the 20th century, also used a Paleolithic style bison figure along with its logo.