In 1879, avocational archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola decided to explore one of the caves on his Spanish estate in a hill called Altamira. The cave had been discovered earlier by a hunter looking for his lost dog. Sautuola’s focus was on the cave’s floor where he had hoped to find some ancient artifacts. He had been to the World Exposition in Paris the year before and had been attracted to an exhibition of prehistoric artifacts. He also met Édouard Piette who was the preeminent collector of prehistoric artifacts.
While he carefully examined the floor of the cave looking for ancient artifacts, his young daughter María was looking at the ceiling and walls which were illuminated by the lantern. It was María who discovered the fabulous paintings on the cave’s ceiling.
Looking up Sautuola saw Altamira’s great painted ceiling covered with almost life-sized depictions of bison. For more than twenty yards, the life-like paintings created an image of buffalo tumbling across the sky. Gregory Curtis, in his book The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the Word’s First Artists, reports the scene this way:
“Sautuola was so dumfounded that he burst out laughing. He must have recognized the absurdity of his intense focus on his careful excavations when rich treasures beyond his dreams were in plain sight only a few feet above his head.”Sautuola returned to the cave with archaeologist Juan Vilanova y Piera from the University of Madrid and together they recorded the cave’s contents. In 1880, Sautuola published a pamphlet, Brief Notes on Some Prehistoric Objects from the Province of Santander, in which he interpreted the paintings as being Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) in origin. The paintings, however, were so spectacular and so well preserved that few people believed that they were Paleolithic. In fact, there were some who accused Sautuola of forgery, feeling that such fine art could have been produced only by a contemporary artist.
Shown above is one of the illustrations from the pamphlet.
A few months after the publication of the pamphlet, Sautoula and Vilanova attended the International Congress of Anthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology in Lisbon where Vilanova gave a presentation on the findings from Altamira. The presentation was met with a great deal of skepticism by the scientific community. In spite of the negative response, Sautoula and Vilanova continued to present papers at conferences where their radical ideas regarding prehistoric art were met with negativity and hostility.
In the meantime, a number of other European caves containing prehistoric paintings and engravings had been discovered: La Mouthe, Pair-non-Pair, Font-de-Guame, and Les Combarelles. By 1902, the scientific community finally agreed with the conclusion that the cave paintings in Altamira had been created in the Paleolithic. Emile Cartailhac, one of the French scientists who had originally opposed the great antiquity of the paintings, published “Mea culpa d'un sceptique” in the journal L'Anthropologie in which he emphatically admitted that he had made a mistake. Unfortunately, Sautuola had died 14 years earlier.
With regard to the age of the Altamira art, recent research (2008-2012) using uranium-thorium dating has shown that they were created over a period of 20,000 years and the oldest art dates to about 35,600 years ago.
Altamira is 296 meters (971 feet) long and is divided into a number of chambers and passages. It is filled with many engravings. One of the features of the site is a series of “masks”: natural rock shapes which have been turned into humanoid faces by adding eyes and other details. The masks are not noticed when entering the cave, but are only apparent when leaving.
The great hall of paintings is 20 meters (66 feet) by 10 meters (33 feet) and contains the images of 18 bison, a horse, and a hind. The paintings are polychromes done in ochre, manganese, and charcoal. Most of the animals appear to be male. In his entry on Altamira in The Oxford Companion to Archaeology, archaeologist Paul Bahn reports:
“Some researchers see this chamber as a symbolic pound, with a bison drive depicted on the ceiling (the curled-up animals at the center are dead, while those around them stand and face the hunters—there are male humans engraved at the edge); another interpretation is a depiction of a bison herd in rutting season.”The archaeological findings at Altamira show that it was a regional gathering place during the Solutrean, and early Magdalenian periods. The cave was sealed off by a rockfall about 13,000 years ago.
Altamira has been declared a World Heritage Site. The cave was closed to the public in 1977 due to damage by the carbon dioxide in the breath of the many visitors. At the present time, visitations are limited and there is a three-year waiting list to be allowed into the cave. A replica cave and museum are located nearby.