Often called the “Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art,” the prehistoric Altamira Cave contains paintings and artifacts dating from 18,000 to 13,000 years ago (BP). Located on Monte Vispieres in Cantabria, Northern Spain, it was first explored in 1879 by Don Marcelino Sanz de Santuola. Early controversy raged over the age of the site, as many doubted that prehistoric humans could produce such sophisticated art; however, its significance was recognized by the early 1900s, and Altamira Cave was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) in 1985.
Altamira Cave consists of an S-shaped series of rooms with a total length of 270 m (886 feet) and contains two rich occupation levels. The earlier, dated to the Solutrean (18,500 years BP), contains stone points, bone awls, and pendants. The second, dated to the Magdalenian (15,500-14,500 years BP), contains antler and bone points and leatherworking tools. Altamira is unusual because it contains both domestic artifacts and cave paintings; most cave art is located far from living areas.
Engraved and painted on the ceiling of the cave are images of wild animals such as bison, deer, horses, and wild boar; outlines of human hands; and abstract figures and shapes. Sometimes drawings are superimposed on earlier works. Bison are the most common animal depicted.
These Paleolithic artists were skilled at painting images on the ceiling that would accurately reflect the proportions of the animal as seen from the cave floor. The images at Altamira were painted in red, brown, yellow, and black pigments. The use of several colors allowed for subtle shadings and perspectives. The naturally rough texture of the walls was used to depict movement and a three-dimensional perspective for the viewer below. These details reflect a significant level of technical skill. On seeing them, Picasso reportedly exclaimed, “After Altamira, all is decadence.” Indeed, many artists of the modern art movement claimed inspiration from Paleolithic cave paintings.
Creating these works of art required a considerable expenditure of effort. The artists needed scaffolding to reach the vaulted ceilings. Light must have been provided (and raised to the ceiling) via torches or bowls filled with animal fat. The four colors of pigment were produced by mixing ochre and manganese with a binder, such as blood or urine. The pigment was then applied with a brush or by blowing it onto a surface with a pipe or by mouth.
Why did our ancestors invest so much energy in cave art? While the thoughts of these artists will never be known, anthropologists have developed several hypotheses to explain why these paintings were created. Perhaps the artists performed sympathetic magic by ritually capturing the animal’s soul prior to the hunt, improving their success. The images could represent hunting trophies or tell stories. Many of the nonanimal symbols seen in cave art have been interpreted as representations of male and female genitalia; maybe the art signals fertility magic, influencing future births. Some feel that many of the symbols are astronomical or calendrical, and used to mark seasons. Possibly, the images were created for aesthetic or nonpractical reasons. Like all art, the social context in which these paintings were made holds the key to what made these images meaningful to the artists and their contemporaries. In any case, the beauty of these Paleolithic paintings is unforgettable.
- Bahn, P., & Vertut, J. (2001). Journey through the Ice Age. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Saura Ramos, P. A. (1999). Cave ofAltamira. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
- Servicio de Informacion Turistica de Cantabria.