Altamira Cave and Spanish Prehistoric Painting

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On this "Altamira" page:

- a description of the cave and how it was discovered

- the story of the scandal surrounding its authentification

- information on current scientific dating of the cave

- conditions for visits

Prehistoric Painting is Discovered in Spain

Spanish cave paintings such as found in Altamira Cave can be divided into roughly three groups - old, pretty old, and really really old.  In other words, Neolithic (the last three or four thousand years before our era), Mesolithic (roughly 10,000-3,000 BC) and Upper Paleolithic (ending 20,000-8,000 BC). 

The cave is important not only for the remarkable quality of the cave paintings it contains; it also was the world’s first site of cave paintings known to be discovered.

Labyrinthine, the cave is over 300 meters long and its passages range from two to six meters in height.  Over 13,000 years ago a fall of rocks sealed it off and the artwork it contained, until one day in the 19th century a tree fell and disturbed the stones.

Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, an amateur archeologist, undertook exploration of Altamira Cave, but it was his nine-year-old daughter Maria who in 1879 noticed pictures of bison on the ceiling.  Sautuola had seen similar images on Paleolithic objects at the World Exhibition the year before, and excitedly guessed that these were prehistoric.

Bitter Controversy

Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola

Sautuola hired a University of Madrid archeologist, Juan Vilanova y Piera, to conduct the excavations of Altamira Cave with him.  Two years later, in 1880, they published their findings, claiming that the paintings were Paleolithic, which produced a firestorm of controversy.   

French experts led by prominent archaeologist Emile Cartailhac refuted the publication, bitterly and loudly, and ridiculed it at a major congress in Lisbon; as a result, its members didn't even both visiting the cave.  Cartailhac reasoned that: 

-       there were no traces of smoke on the ceiling from prehistoric fires, nor from the lighting the artists would have needed in such dark recesses;

-       thin stalactites had formed over some of the paintings, far too thin for the images to be very old;

-       on one side of the cave the paintings looked far too fresh to be very old;

-       the rough walls of living rock, crumbling over time, should have erased lines of the paintings, yet they were whole and firmly drawn;

-       the bison should all look like aurochs (a now extinct wild cattle, the last one having died in the 17th century) but they have many major differences between them, so the artist necessarily had never seen an auroch, i.e. had been born long after they were extinct;

-       while the bison drawings were of lesser quality, there was a doe’s head that, Cartailhac concluded, could only have come from the hand of a trained master…and, he implied, not from a caveman's.

Sautuola was even accused of forgery, and a man from his region came forward to claim that a modern artist had been hired to do the job in Altamira Cave.

It wasn’t until 1902 that progress in the field led Cartailhac to recant his opposition on Altamira Cave in a now-famous article, “A Skeptic’s Mea Culpa”, which I managed to track down at the Bibliothèque Nationale here in France, and of which I translate a few lines:

“M. Marcelino S. de Sautuola, a worthy Spanish gentleman, had seen the 1878 Paris Exhibition and our wonderful prehistoric exhibitions and resolved to excavate various caves he had visited from time to time in the mountains of his province…in Altamira...

...M. de Sautuola noticed, in the first gallery…a great many animals painted in black and red ochre, life-sized or somewhat life-sized, among which could be distinguished ‘bisons and a few horses’, represented in profile, in a great variety of positions, rarely face on, and in some exceptional cases in incomprehensible positions.…

Emile Cartailhac

M. de Sautuola kept me informed of his discoveries and shortly after published (them).  Our very prudent colleague did not affirm that the paintings were contemporary to the Paleolithic deposits (in the cave).  He contented himself with simply raising the issue.

There is no point in insisting on my impressions on seeing M. de Sautuola’s drawings.  It was absolutely new, strange as it could be.  I kept my own counsel.  An instinct that had served me well before led me quickly to skepticism.  ‘Watch out!  These pious Spanish are trying to play tricks on French prehistorians!’ people wrote to me.  ‘Watch out for them.’

And so I watched out….”

Sautuola's original pencil drawing sent to Cartailhac

Sautuola lived and died without ever getting full recognition of his discovery’s significance, and without ever getting the chance to read the lines of the still-celebrated article that cleared his name:

“…It follows from all observed that we no longer have any reason to be suspicious of saying the Altamira paintings are very ancient...

...One has to yield to the reality of the facts, and, as for as this is concerned, I must make proper amends to M. de Sautuola…”

This article changed our perception of what prehistoric man was, for good. 

Far more than an ape, prehistoric man was a creature capable of making fine art.

Recent Understanding

In fact it was scientific research on other cave paintings in France that led Cartailhac to acknowledge the error of his ways.  The Spanish conducted more excavation work on Altamira Cave in the two years following publication of “Mea Culpa”; this work was succeeded by a German and another Spanish archeologist’s work there.

Altamira’s artwork is still being assessed to determine its actual age.  Researchers used uranium-thorium dating processes to determine in 2008 that the paintings were actually done over a period as long as 20,000 years; prior to this it had been thought they were all done over a relatively short bit of time.

In 2012 further research of this kind revealed that some of the art, in particular a claviform shape, was about 35,600 years old.

Getting a Look

The paintings were done with a combination of red and black ochre and charcoal, and artists took advantage of the rock’s relief to give a three-dimensional look to their pictures; they also diluted the pigment “paint” to shade their work.

The most impressive part of the prehistoric art is what is called the Polychrome Ceiling, reproduced (in black and white, above) in Sautuola’s original drawing submitted to Cartailhac.  This patch of paintings includes two horses, a doe, a boar and predominantly, a herd of bison.

Unfortunately, carbon dioxide exhaled by the cave’s many visitors since its discovery has meant it must be closed to the public in order to conserve the artwork.  A replica cave and museum are nearby, and more comfortable for getting a good look at the paintings, even if they are…mere copies.

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