The Altamira cave is a very significant monument from Palaeolithic, that for some odd reason many people still do not know, or this is what I have found out. Because of such a thing, and considering I know them well as they are part of my cultural heritage, this blog entry is entirely dedicated to this topic. To start with, you need to know that “this cave, without doubt the best known cave in the Cantabrian region, is situated about two and a half kilometres to the south-west of the town of Santillana del Mar”1. The complex of galleries and tunnels that form the cave is about 270 metres long, and its well-known pre-historical paintings have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Site2. It is particularly well-known by its paintings of animals. The site was actually discovered in 1879 by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola who was an archaeologist, ecologist and investigator3. The historical tradition (although many say it is just a mere urban legend) says that it was really his daughter, accompanied by her dog, who adventured herself in the inside of the cave and discovered its wonders. At the present moment, the cave is not open to the public as the paintings had suffered some damage during the several years of visits (changes on temperature, air, light, etc. because of the constant presence of the visitors) so it has been closed, although it is sometimes opened for very special occasions. Nonetheless, nearby a museum and a replica of the cave4, the Neocueva, have been created and they are a well substitute for the real thing.
The Discovery of the Cave and its Impact
It is important to know the general circumstances in which the discovery of the site took place and how it changed the academic world, and the region of course. First of all, one should know that this all happened in the very moment in which there was starting to be an interest on the pre-historical man in Europe5, which contributed to the advances of these investigation and the impact. The truth it that what was found in the cave shocked the experts of this area and created many debates. For example, the researchers that were investigating the multiple extraordinary animal paintings that one could see in the ceilings and walls thought that they were far more recent6. However, after a long period of study they finally determined that they were from the Palaeolithic era, and to be precise from the Magdaleniensis period7. This polemic started because both archaeologists and historians did not believe that the cave-men could be so advanced8. In fact, it became a huge issue because such a discovery demonstrated to be the opposite of what most of the Darwinian theories taught about the subject9, but of course nowadays we know they were wrong and these prehistoric men were capable of doing that and even more extraordinary things. In addition, the archaeological evidences found in the cave were, and still are, of great importance to the development of this field because they encouraged the experts to actively go to the deposits and dig, which helped to clarify many ideas and solved many questions10. Some of the remains that have been discovered in there are silex, amulets, knives, needles and pieces of arrows. And finally, it had to be said that this archaeological work inspired many other experts and contributed to the discovery of the several other caves around the area and region in general11.
Considering that this cave has been called the “Sistine chapel of the prehistory”12, I will dedicate this section to talk about what in Spanish we call arte rupestre in the cave. To begin with, it has to be considered that the period in which these paintings were made was the Magdaleniensis (15000-8000 b.C), in the High Palaeolithic. It is very important as this was the stage in which palaeolithic art reached its peak moment; perfection in technique and style. Its characteristics are the following: anonymous authors which are considered real artists, and animal paintings, although there are also some symbols and artefacts. Focusing on the paintings it is important to know a couple of things. First of all, the images of animals do not form sequences, they are isolated. In fact, in the Altamira cave we can find 21 isolated bisons, which are the most relevant artistic features of the monument13. The cave-men used natural pigments and resources to produce the colours such as coal, earth, water, animal and vegetable lard, and even blood. The figures, despite having any sort of depth, manage to produce a 3D volume effect thanks to the form and density of the rocks, and even though they are abstract and simple, they are also realistic: one can easily tell the specie, sex and age of the animal represented.
Many historians, archaeologists and art experts have tried to find a meaning for these paintings. Basing themselves on the fields of material culture and anthropology some theories have been developed. One of them is that they were painted for the sake of art. Prehistoric tribes might wanted to make their cold, dark caves a bit more cosy, and so they decorated them. The other two are related with religion and magical believe. The first one is based on the fact that these people as we still do today, believed in something bigger than them. Because of this, they draw this totems so this caves would be like a temple in which they prayed to the magical animal-gods for food and success in their hunting expeditions. The other theory is the one based on animistic-voodoo believes. In many paintings, not only in Altamira but in other caves as well, some animal figures are marked with arrows or hands. Some think that what the primitive men were doing was casting spells on trapped soul of this animals. In this way, as they were hurting the representation of a certain prey when they actually got to hunt it, it would have been easier as they would have already caused some damage to the animal. Nonetheless, there are no other evidences to support any of these theories in particular (nor to disprove them) so the experts rather consider them all, as in combination they provide an easier understanding of prehistoric practice and believes.
To end this blog entry, I would like to point out that even though we do know rather a lot about the Altamira cave, there are still things that need to be done. Recent researches explain that it is quite difficult to dig further in the site as there have been certain areas that have collapsed over the years and there might be a possibility of doing something wrong and bring down the whole thing14. Due to this, it is impossible to know for sure the whole variety of objects and elements that configure the deposit itself. Maybe not even with exhaustive research we would be able to know exactly everything about the cave and its inhabitants, or at least that is the fear of the local experts15. However, the investigation is on going, and some advances are apparently extremely interesting. The team of archaeologists and explorers formed by C.Gonzalez Sainz, R. Cacho Toca and T. Fukazawa seem to believe that the decoration of the cave could be even older, from the Solutrensis period instead of the Magdaleniensis16.
Anyway, what can certainly be said about this site, no matter from what period it is or its content is that “Altamira es ya más que una realidad; es un símbolo”17.
(Altamira is now more than a reality; it is a symbol)
-García Guinea, M.A., Altamira y otras Cuevas de Cantabria (Madrid, 2004)
-González Sainz, C., Cacho Toca, R., and Fukazawa, T., Arte Paleolítico en la Región Cantábrica: Base de Datos Multimedia (Santander, 2003)
-And also my amazing History of Art notes, class that was taught by Fernando Celada, IES Santa Clara, Santander, Cantabria, Spain, 2008-2009
1C.Gonzalez Sainz, R. Cacho Toca and T. Fukazawa, Arte Paleolítico en la Región Cantábrica: Base de Datos Multimedia (Santander, 2003), p. 85
5M.A. García Guinea, Altamira y otras Cuevas de Cantabria (Madrid, 2004), p. 4
6M.A. García Guinea, Altamira y otras Cuevas de Cantabria (Madrid, 2004), p. 20
7M.A. García Guinea, Altamira y otras Cuevas de Cantabria (Madrid, 2004), p. 22
9M.A. García Guinea, Altamira y otras Cuevas de Cantabria (Madrid, 2004), p. 10
10M.A. García Guinea, Altamira y otras Cuevas de Cantabria (Madrid, 2004), p. 95
11M.A. García Guinea, Altamira y otras Cuevas de Cantabria (Madrid, 2004), p. 96-7
14C.Gonzalez Sainz, R. Cacho Toca and T. Fukazawa, Arte Paleolítico en la Región Cantábrica: Base de Datos Multimedia (Santander, 2003), p. 88
15C.Gonzalez Sainz, R. Cacho Toca and T. Fukazawa, Arte Paleolítico en la Región Cantábrica: Base de Datos Multimedia (Santander, 2003), p. 93
16C.Gonzalez Sainz, R. Cacho Toca and T. Fukazawa, Arte Paleolítico en la Región Cantábrica: Base de Datos Multimedia (Santander, 2003), p. 94
17M.A. García Guinea, Altamira y otras Cuevas de Cantabria (Madrid, 2004), p. 92