Altamira Cave



Constituting as it does a world-famed monument, Altamira Cave is perhaps the most popular of the Spanish contribution to the Heritage of Mankind, the cultural inventory created by UNESCO. Such universal repute has led the cave to earn its place in the select ensemble of artistic manifestations that, wherever one may be in the world, inevitably serve to identify Spain. The great popularity of Altamira and the representative function it performs are to be put down to the truly unique nature of many of its features, as a result of which the cave simply cannot be restricted to the narrow context of any particular cultural region.

Located on Monte Vispieres, Altamira Cave is to be found at the top of one the gently-rising calcareous elevations flanking the small valley in which the town of Santillana lies. The only entrance to the cave faces north and stands at 156 metres above the present sea level. Lying five kilometres from the sea, it is a little over two kilometres away from the nearby River Saja. Stretching out over a total length of 270 metres, the cave features a main passage whose height varies from 2 to 12 metres and whose width rages from 6 to 20 metres. Its ceiling is very near to the land surface, the average distance separating it from the latter along the entire length of the cave being approximately 11 metres.



The first archaeological excavations carried out at Altamira were those undertaken by Sautuola in 1879. After meeting Cartailhac and Breuil, a pioneer figure in Cantabrian prehistoric studies, Hermilio Alcalde del Ri'o, was to conduct a series of excavations in the cave as from 1902. His findings were published both in one of his own works and as an additional chapter to that of the two french prehistorians.


The excavations have revealed the existence of two very rich archaeological levels. The lowest-lying and oldest of these belongs to the Solutrean culture and was formed as a result of the human occupation of the cave around 18.500 years ago. Amongst the stone tools found at this level are a wide variety of characteristic flintwork points featuring a concave base or a notch with a projecting lip on one side to make it even easier to affix the point to a wooden shaft. Each of the various types of points found appear in a range of sizes and calibres, the smallest of which can be associated with arrowheads and the use of bows. Burins, scrapers and the odd percussion tool for flaking purposes complete the list of the most important items of the stone collection. The bone industry includes awls (points for piercing holes), gravers and pendants.


Lying just above the Solutrean level is the Magdalenian. This new period of human occupation of the cave has been dated as having occurred 15.500 and 14.000 years ago. On observing this level one is first of all struck by the lack of lithic industry and the practical disappearance of flint points that seem to have been replaced by those made from antler and bone. Working tools are well represented (needles, spatulas, instruments for smoothing leather, wedges, pierced antler rods or ba^tons de commandement, etc) and perhaps the most outstanding feature of this level is the abundance of harpoons and the sheer variety of their decoration.


On the basis of the data provided by archaeological excavations with regard to both the natural environment and the material culture at Altamira, we can now venture a portrayal of the human groups who lived here 18.000 and 14.000 years ago. At the outset it should be borne in mind that this period is normally referred to as that when the technique of collective hunting flourished. Such an affirmation is supported on the one hand by the existence of outstanding, practically universal artistic manifestations -painting and sculpture-, and on the other by the degree of perfection and sophistication that had been attained in stone and bone working techniques, as is illustrated by the Solutrean flint points and the Magdalenian antler harpoons.




Next to the living area of the cave and bathed in the dim natural light from the mouth of the northwardfacing cave, we come across the renowned Ceiling of the Polycromes (Sp.: techo de los poli'comos). On analyzing the superimposed paintings and engravings, we discover, at the part of the ceiling farthest away from the entrance, a number of monochrome red figures. Identifiable amongst the latter are four outlined or monochrome-shaded horses, a goat, and several hands, which likewise are drawn either as outlines or as shaded figures. Here there is also a number of more dubious figures such as what seems to be an elk and a series of enigmatic signs and red stains appearing in direct contact with other figures and polychrome paintings that have clearly been superimposed. It would appear, therefore, that the said mysterious figures are the oldest creations to be seen in this varied and colourful ensemble. Unfortunately, their state of conservation is such that they are not easy to make out, any appreciation being further hampered by the fact that the figures lie low down close to the ground.


In the rest of the cave, the use of red is repeated only once, in a little chamber featuring a group of signs, the most outstanding example of which measures two metres in length. This chamber is indeed a most extraordinary place, one which invites us to ponder the true purpose of its paintings, since in order to appreciate the said sign one has to practically lie down on the ground; furthermore, it is virtually impossible for more than two or three people to observe it at the same time.


The red Altamira paintings cannot be dated directly owing to their exclusively mineral composition. However, in light of their relative position on the Ceiling of the Polychromes and the stylistic features they display, it is possible to link their creation to the Solutrean occupations.


Whilst for many years scholars have searched for the reason underlying the cave art of the Palaeolithic, at the present point in time the view is held that for such an extensive cultural manifestation as this - both in terms of time (stretching out over 20.000 years) and space (encompassing Portugal, Spain, France and Italy) - there simply cannot be a single common cause or just one interpretation. Today, therefore, we are witnessing a time of profound reevaluation and detailed analysis of the phenomenon of cave art, a process that has to include Altamira and which must be carried out before other syntheses can be put forward.


The Altamira Museum will be situated 200 m, from the cavern.  It will have many modern rooms, such as laboratories, specialized library,  auditorium, shop and restaurant.