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 Location: Antillana del Mar, Cantabria, Spain.  Grid Reference: 43� 22' 00" N. 2� 42' 00" W.


      Altamira: (Magdelanian Cave Art).

'The Sistine Chapel of Palaeolithic Art'

Particularly famous for being the first example of European Cave art ever discovered. The discoverer Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola's of the paintings in the cave in 1879 was sadly pilloried as a forger till his death fifteen years later. It wasn't until another five years after his death that another example of cave art was discovered which restored his reputation as an archaeologist.

(Internal ground-plan of the Cave System)



   Altamira 'High View':

Description: There are three major sites containing cave paintings in Northern Spain which are presumed to have been painted by the Magdalenian people between 16,000-9,000 BC, but Altamira is the only site at which the signs of domestic life extend into the first cavern which contain the actual paintings. (1) The Altamira cave is one of seventeen found along the mountains of North Spain near the Atlantic coast. At around 300m long, the cave system consists of a series of twisting passages ranging from 2 - 6m high upon which over a hundred animal figures were drawn on the ceilings.

In 2008 British scientists dated the paintings with the U/Th method. Before the carbon of the charcoal in the paintings was used to determine the age of the paintings using the C14 method. Obviously this works only for the black parts of the paintings which contain carbon. Uranium decays to thorium and this process happens in any kind of calcite deposit. This method measures the uranium and thorium content in flowstone crusts which grew on top of the painting. As a matter of fact this method only gives a minimum age, but it is usable also for engravings and paintings without charcoal. The results are astonishing: parts of the artworks are between 25,000 and 35,000 years old. (2)

During the 1960s and 1970s, the paintings in the Altamira Cave were being damaged by the damp breath of large numbers 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. At the present time, a study is being made of the conservation conditions inside the Cave of Altamira, so it is NOT possible to visit it. A museum and an unsatisfying, cheap replica of a small section of the cave were built nearby (You've been warned).

Artistic analysis: The paintings at Altamira are polychrome, having as many as three colours in the body of a single animal, a significant advance in technical artistic skills. The same artistic skills are further reflected in the accuracy of the physical proportions of depicted animals. One of the most impressive things about the animal figures are that many were painted on natural protrusions from the rock face; something seen in other caves from the Palaeolithic, although most samples of cave painting ignore the natural character of the rock concentrating on only one dimension. The images at Altamira were both painted and engraved.

Three Dimensional Cave Art. Altimira.

Examples of the way in which the protrusions on the ceiling were utilised to enhance the art.

(Other Examples of 3-Dimensional Cave-Art)


In the complex of painting in the cave, bison's in different positions are most common and carried out most expertly. Other animals include horses, red deer and boar. The animal figures are painted to almost life-size scale, e.g. the red deer is 2.20m long. The artists very painstakingly depicted its specific and sexual features. The use of relief has given the  pictures a special dynamism and movement of the animals. Even the texture of the furs and manes of the different species painted on the rock surface were included.

Other drawings, described as anthropomorphous, show humans with animal heads as well as different signs, such as hands or comb-and step-like symbols still not understood.



Telegraph (Oct. 2011):  'Spain to reopen Altamira Caves despite risk of destroying prehistoric paintings'.

Spain's Altamira caves, which contain some of the world's best prehistoric paintings, are to be reopened to the public, despite warnings that human breath will destroy the 20,000-year-old paintings.

(Link to full article)


Gallery of Images: Altamira.


(Other Prehistoric Spanish Sites)

(Cave-Art Homepage)

(Palaeolithic Homepage)



1). http://www.thenagain.info/Webchron/World/Altamira.html
2). http://www.showcaves.com/english/es/showcaves/Altamira.html

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