Altamira Cave Paintings
Dating, Layout, Photographs of Prehistoric Paleolithic Bison Pictures.

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This pair of club-shaped symbols,
found at Altamira are known as
claviforms. Dated by U/Th methods
to at least 34,000 BCE, they are among
the oldest prehistoric abstract signs
ever discovered.

Altamira Cave Paintings (34,000-15,000 BCE)


Altamira Cave: A Summary
The Cave Art
Art Materials and Methods
Painting Techniques
Other Prehistoric Caves in Spain

Painting of a Bison (c.15,000 BCE)
From the Altamira Cave Complex,
home to some of the earliest art
of prehistory.

Polychrome Animal Painting from
Altamira (c.15,000 BCE) See also:
Oldest Stone Age Art: Top 100 Works.

For details of the oldest
Stone Age cave art, see:
Blombos Cave Rock Art.

Altamira Cave Paintings: A Summary

Located in northern Spain, not far from the village of Antillana del Mar in Cantabria, the Upper Paleolithic cave complex at Altamira is famous for its magnificent multi-coloured cave painting, as well as its rock engravings and drawings. It is one of seventeen such caves unearthed along the mountains of North Spain near the Atlantic coast, on the main migratory route from the Middle East, which followed the North African coast, crossed the sea at Gibraltar and led through Spain into France. Other important Cantabrian sites of Ice Age cave art include the El Castillo Cave (c.39,000 BCE), and the Pasiega Cave (c.16,000 BCE), as well as La Pileta Cave (18,000 BCE) (Malaga) and Tito Bustillo Cave (14,000 BCE) (Asturias).

First discovered in 1868, though not fully appreciated until the 1900s, Altamira was the first of the great caches of prehistoric art to be discovered, and despite other exciting finds in Cantabria and southern France, Altamira's paintings of bisons and other wild mammals are still the most vividly coloured and visually powerful examples of Paleolithic art and culture to be found on the continent of Europe. As usual, archeologists remain undecided about when Altamira's parietal art was first created. Early investigations suggested that the most of it was created at the same time as the Lascaux cave paintings - that is, during the early period of Magdalenian art (15,000 BCE). But according to the most recent research, some drawings were made between 23,000 and 34,000 BCE, during the period of Aurignacian art, contemporaneous with the Chauvet Cave paintings and the Pech-Merle cave paintings. The general style at Altamira remains that of Franco-Cantabrian cave art, as characterised by the pronounced realism of the figures represented. Indeed, Altamira's artists are renowned for how they used the natural contours of the cave to make their animal figures seem extra-real. The actual subterranean complex itself consists of a 270-metre long series of twisting passages ranging from 2-6 metres (about 7-20 feet) in height, in which more than 100 animal figures are depicted. Unlike most other decorated rock shelters of the Upper Paleolithic, Altamira cave was a place of domestic human habitation This was limited to the cave mouth and lobby area, although paintings and petroglyphs were created throughout the length of the cave. About 12,000 BCE, a landslide sealed the cave's entrance, thus preserving its contents until its accidental discovery in the late 19th century. Like many similar prehistoric caves, Altamira has been dogged by environmental and conservation problems. It was closed for conservation purposes in 1977 (reopened 1982), and again in 2002. Today, the cave is only accessible to scientists and a handful of visitors chosen by lottery. Meantime, the Spanish Ministry of Culture has opened a replica cave at the adjacent National Museum and Research Center of Altamira. Other replicas can be seen in the National Archeological Museum of Spain, Madrid, and in the Deutsches Museum, Munich. In 1985, Altamira was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 2008, UNESCO added 17 additional caves to the Altamira World Heritage Site. For details about how the cave murals of Altamira fit into the evolution of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline. For a comparison with early African painting, please see the animal images on the Apollo 11 Cave Stones (c.25,500 BCE).



The cave was first discovered in 1868 by Modesto Peres, a local hunter searching for his dog, but it wasn't until 1879 that the murals on the ceiling of the cave were spotted by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola a local nobleman and amateur archeologist, when excavating the cave floor for artifacts. Sautuola examined the cave further along with Juan Vilanova y Piera, an archeologist from the University of Madrid, and the pair published a report (1880) stating that the cave's wall paintings and engravings belonged to the Palelithic era of prehistory. Experts who read the report, notably the French scholars Gabriel de Mortillet and Emile Cartailhac, ridiculed its findings at the 1880 Prehistorical Congress in Lisbon, although eventually, in 1902, they and other scientists in the archeological establishment admitted their mistake and acknowledged the authenticity of the Altamira paintings. However not until the anthropologist Henri Breuil (1877-1961) began circulating copies of the paintings in the mid/late 1900s, did the world at large became aware of the true visual significance of the site. For four decades thereafter Altamira was the world's leading showcase of prehistoric ancient art, until its eclipse by the Lascaux cave paintings in the late 1940s.


The first significant research into the age of Altamira's rock art was done by French paleolithic scholars Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Annette Laming. Using the carbon 14 dating method, they found that two of the cave paintings dated to between 15,000 and 12,000 BCE, which placed them in the Magdalenian (Style III) period. In 2004, researchers analyzed eight strata in the floor of the cave: five corresponded to the Magdalenian era, between 12,000 and 13,500 BCE; two paintings (along with a few prehistoric hand stencils) related to the Solutrean culture of between 15,200 and 17,630 BCE. But the main discovery was an eighth level, previously undetected, dating back to the Gravettian era of about 20,000 BCE.

Then, in 2008, British scientists dated the paintings using the Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) method. To everyone's astonishment, they found that certain artworks were created between 23,000 and 33,000 BCE. In 2012, further U/Th tests found that a particular club-shaped image dated back to 34,000 BCE. The interesting thing about the U/Th dating method is that it gives a minimum age. So the above artworks could be even older. Th U/Th method was also used to date the sensational finds of Sulawesi Cave art (c.37,900 BCE) in Indonesia.

These recent dating results are consistent with other finds in the region. In 2012, for example, a red dot and a hand print found at the El Castillo Cave - also in Cantabria - were dated to at least 39,000 BCE and 35,500 BCE respectively (Aurignacian era), making them the oldest art of their type from any cave in Europe. Only La Ferrassie Cave Cupules (c.60,000 BCE) are older.

Note: other ancient works from the Aurignacian period include: the Lion Man of Hohlenstein Stadel (38,000 BCE); the Venus of Hohle Fels (38,000-33,000 BCE); the Ivory Carvings of the Swabian Jura (c.30,000 BCE) (from the Vogelherd cave) and the Chauvet Cave Paintings, mentioned above.

Layout of Altamira Cave

Some 270-metres (890 feet) in length, the Altamira cave has three main galleries: the Chamber of the Frescoes ("Gran Sala de los Policromos" or "Sala de los Frescos"), the Chamber of the Hole/Basin ("Sala de la Hoya") and the end passage known as the Horse's Tail ("Cola de Caballo"). Originally the cave had a huge covered entrance, some 20 metres (66 feet) wide and 6 metres (40 feet) high. This led directly into a large hall, usually lit by daylight, which was where the inhabitants lived. In about 12,000 BCE the entrance collapsed, leaving a smaller vestibule area.

The hall immediately behind the entrance is the main picture gallery, which contains most of the cave's paintings. Known as the Chamber of the Frescoes, it is 18 metres (60 feet) long, and about 9-10 metres (27-30 feet) wide, with an extremely low ceiling about (3.75 feet) - which is presumably why the artists decided to paint it instead of the walls. At any rate, it is covered with about one hundred pictures of animals, mostly bison, painted in a beautiful polychrome of red, black and violet. There are several other pictographs featuring horses, wild boars (including an eight-legged wild boar), and a stag, along with engravings of eight anthropomorphic figures, numerous handprints and hand outlines. (See also: Aboriginal Rock Art: Australia).

The ceiling was initially painted with red figures, especially those of horses. After this, a large number of female deer, and the hybrid animal/human figures. Later the large multi-coloured bison were added. Lastly, just before the entrance collapsed a few charcoal drawings of bison were added.

The other galleries include the Chamber of the Hole/Basin, which features a number of black-painted animal figures and engravings of various types; and a very narrow passageway called the Horse's Tail, some 50 metres (165 feet) long, one metre (3 feet) high and one metre wide, which is located in the deepest part of the cave. The latter contains a large number of different signs and symbols, including a quantity of tectiforms.

The Cave Art of Altamira

Like the Lascaux cave, Altamira has three types of art: coloured paintings, black drawings and rock engravings. As mentioned above, subjects are mostly animals (bison, boar, deer, horses), although there are eight anthropomorphic figures and a large amount of geometric signs and symbols.

The paintings are unique for several reasons. First, they are composed of many different colours (up to three colours in a single animal), more than is common in most other examples of parietal art. The bisons in particular are depicted in varying shades, making them appear astonishingly lifelike. Second, the animals - twenty-five of which are depicted in life-size proportions - are depicted with unusual accuracy. The bisons are especially well rendered; so too is the red deer. Other animals are also depicted in detail, down to the texture of their fur and manes. Third, when composing their pictures, the Magdalenian artists took full advantage of the natural contours, facets and angles of the rock surface to make the figures as three-dimensional as possible.

The drawings, which include some of the oldest and youngest prehistoric art in the complex, are outlined in black manganese oxide or charcoal and often smudged for maximum volume and relief. Subjects include animals and also hybrid figures (humans with animal heads). Engravings at Altamira appear throughout the cave. Some are independent works, others are added to paintings either to boost volume or to complete the composition.

In addition to Altamira's figure painting and figure drawing, the cave also contains a large amount of abstract art, in the form of signs and symbols, most of which are still not understood. They include a number of unusual club-shaped images and tectiforms (images shaped like an upward-pointing wedge or arrow), drawn and engraved in the most remote part of the cave, which have yet to be deciphered. Lastly, there is a quantity of finger marks and finger fluting. (Note: For the best examples of finger fluting in Australia, see: Koonalda Cave Art c.18,000 BCE.)

Art Materials and Methods

In general, one can say that the Altamira cave was slightly easier to paint than the cave at Lascaux. The ceiling of the main gallery, which hosts most of the paintings in the complex, is within easy reach and would have been relatively well lit by daylight. But this is more than offset by the advanced painting techniques shown by Altamira's artists which, in the opinion of many experts, gives them the edge over their prehistoric counterparts in France.

Colour is the dominant feature of Altamira's art, although the colour pigments used would not have differed significantly from those employed in the rest of Cantabria, or in southwestern France. Here, as elsewhere, artists relied on the same basic prehistoric colour palette, of black, most shades of red, along with a range of warm colours, from earth brown to straw yellow. Nearly all were made from natural minerals, which do not decay. Iron-rich ochre, haematite and goethite produced the reds, yellow and browns, while manganese made the blacks. Variations in intensity or hue were typically obtained by diluting the pigment with juices, animal blood or saliva, or by scratching the rock to create a paler line.

Painting Techniques

At Lascaux, research shows that artists did not employ brushes to apply paint. Instead they used pads of moss or hair, or even blocks of raw colour. In addition, they developed a technique of spray-painting using hollowed out bones to blow paint onto the rock surface.

Artists at Altamira used an identical method of spray painting, which worked as follows. Two hollow bones are used; one is positioned vertically in a container containing water mixed with a pigment like ochre; the other is held in the artist's mouth. As the artist blows air across the top of the upright hollow bone, the reduction in air pressure sucks the ochre up the vertical hollow bone, after which it is blown onto the rock by the jet of air from the bone in the mouth of the artist. A hollowed out colour-stained leg bone of a bird found at Altamira, was dated to approximately 16,000 BCE, proving that Solutrean-Magdalenian artists were adept at spray painting by this time.

Curiously, unlike at Lascaux, where all the drawing was performed using manganese for the black outlines, Altamira artists also used charcoal, right up until 12,000 BCE, just before the cave was sealed by a landslide.

Other Prehistoric Caves in Spain

Eighteen Stone Age caves decorated with various types of parietal art have been discovered in northern Spain. All have been grouped together and designated a UN World Heritage Site. These Paleolithic rock shelters are located in three different regions - Cantabria, Asturias, and the Basque region - and date from 35,000 to 11,000 BCE. They were occupied, it is believed, by groups of a new species of Homo sapiens, known as "anatomically modern man", who gradually replaced Neanderthals throughout the continent of Europe. It was this new species, that scholars believe was responsible for the explosion of cave painting and prehistoric sculpture that began around 40,000 BCE. However, please note the alleged Neanderthal abstract painting and engraving at El Castillo Cave (Cantabria) (c.39,000 BCE) and Gorham's Cave (37,000 BCE) in Gibraltar. Fortunately for us, the artwork in the Spanish caves was protected from vandalism and environmental decay by rockslides that sealed the entrances to the caves thus preserving their contents.

Note: Another treasure of Iberian prehistoric art is the extensive collection of outdoor petroglyphs - the Coa Valley Engravings (22,000 BCE) in northeast Portugal.

The Stone Age sites in Spain (other than Altamira) listed by the UN include: (in Cantabria), the Cave of Chufin, the Cave of Hornos de la Pena, the Cave of El Pendo, the Cave of La Garma, the Cave of Covalanas, the Complex of the Caves del Monte Castillo, Cave of Las Monedas, the Cave of Las Chimeneas, the Cave of El Castillo and the Cave of La Pasiega; (in Asturias ), the Cave of Tito Bustillo, the Cave of Candamo, the Cave of La Covaciella, the Cave of Llonin, and the Cueva del Pindal; (in the Basque region), Cave of Altxerri, the Cave of Ekain, and the Cave of Santimamine.

• For monumental Stone Age works, see: Megalithic Art.
• For the Paleolithic origins of painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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