Published on November 19th, 2009 | by Yellow Magpie0
The Cave Of Altamira: Modern Art Happened 18,000 Years Ago
Replica Of The Cave Of Altamira At The Museo Arqueologico Nacional Madrid Photo By Jose Manuel Benito
The Cave Of Altamira is located near Santillana del Mar, Santander, Spain. The cave is famous for its palaeolithic cave paintings of wild animals in red, charcoal and ochre and is frequently described as the Sistine Chapel of Palaeolithic Art. What is astonishing about the paintings is that they look like modern art yet they are between 14 and 18,000 years old.
The Cave measures 270 metres long and is made up of various rooms and passages in an S shape. With the main chamber measuring 18m by 9m.
In 1879 María Justina, the nine year old daughter of amateur archaeologist Marcelinon Sanz de Sautuola, discovered a series of drawings and paintings on the roof of the cave. Her father had been searching for artifacts in the cave when his daughter cried out ‘Look, Papa, oxen’. The paintings and drawings depicted wild animals including bison, red deer, boar and horses along with paintings of human hands.
Sautuola and archaeologist Juan Vilanovoy Piera from the University of Madrid, together excavated the cave. And in 1880 they publicised their findings in Braves apuntes alaunos objetos prehistoricas de la provincial de Santander, in which they concluded the paintings dated to the Paleolithic Period.
Thought To Be Forgeries
The findings of Sautola and Piera were dismissed by French specialists Gabriel de Mortilet and Emile Cartailhac, and at the 1880 Prehistorical Congress in Lisbon, their hypothesis was loudly rejected as nonsense.
The Catholic Church also became involved and was anxious to discredit the paintings for fear it might focus on evolution and put into question the omnipresence of God.
At one point, because of the well preserved nature of the paintings, Sautuola was even accused of forgery by a fellow country man who suggested Sautuola had hired someone to produce the paintings.
In 1902 a number of other prehistoric paintings were discovered which served to convince experts that the Altamira paintings were indeed genuine.
That same year Emile Cartailhac admitted he had been wrong in his condemnation of the findings of Sautuola and published an article in the journal L’Anthropologie, entitled ‘Mea culpa d’une sceptique’.
However, his apology came too late for Sautuola who didn’t live to see his good name restored or his conclusions vindicated, as he had died 14 years earlier.
Artifacts have been found in the cave that date from as early as the 18,500 years ago and as early as 14,000 years ago covering the Upper Solutrean and Lower Magdalenean Periods. It appears that a rockfall had sealed off the cave roughly 13,000 years ago.
Excavations continued from 1902 to 1904 by Hermilio Alcalde del Rio and by the German Hugo Obermaier from 1924 to 1925 and finally by Joaquin Gonzalez Echegaray in 1981.
In 1985 the cave was enrolled into the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
During the 1960s and 1970s the paintings were becoming badly damaged by the carbon dioxide emitted from the breath of the crowds of people who flocked to see the historic chambers. So in 1977, the cave was closed to the public. It was reopened in 1982 but with very limited access. Finally in 2001 a replica cave was opened and the original cave was closed completely.
The Cave Of Altamira’s Powerful Impact
Following a visit to the cave Picasso is quoted as saying ‘Beyone Altamira all is decadence’.
In 1999 the rock group Steely Dan188 released their song in honour of the caves, called ‘The Caves of Altamira’.
The Cave of Altamira is the definitive book on the subject and shows just how modern these ancient peoples’ art really was.
Cave Paintings and The Human Spirit is a cheaper book which covers many known cave paintings including Altamira.
For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom you can access Cave Paintings and The Human Spirit here:
For France: Cave Paintings and The Human Spirit.
Thought To Be Forgeries
Altamire’s Powerful Impact