Altamira Cave Paintings
Prehistoric Animal Pictures: Paleolithic Stone Age Parietal Art: Bison Drawings.

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Painting of a Bison (c.15,000 BCE)
From the Altamira Cave Complex,
home to some of the greatest
Stone Age Art.

Altamira Cave Paintings (c.15,000 BCE)

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 vivid rock art, featuring drawings and multi-coloured cave painting of wild animals and human hands, leading to its nickname as the "Sistine Chapel of Stone Age art". This treasure house of prehistoric art was designated a UN World Heritage site in 1985. See also: Chauvet Cave Paintings (30,000 BCE) Vallon-Pont-d'Arc; Cosquer Cave Paintings (25,000 BCE) Marseille; Pech-Merle Cave Paintings (c.25,000 BCE), Midi-Pyrenees; and Lascaux Cave Paintings (c.17,000 BCE) Montignac, Dordogne.

To see how the cave murals of Altamira fit into the evolution of petroglyphs and other parietal art during the Stone Age, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.


Polychrome Animal Painting from
Altamira (c.15,000 BCE)

OLDEST PREHISTORIC SCULPTURE
For details of the earliest
figurative carving in the
history of art, see:
Venus of Hohle Fels.

Discovery

Discovered in 1879, by paleo-archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, Altamira is the only painted cave in which signs of domestic human habitation are evident in a chamber with paintings. Usually, only the initial entrance area of the cave was used as a shelter, with the rest of the cave being reserved for art only.

Dates of Cave Paintings at Altamira

Archaeological investigations have dated Altamira's cave art to the Magdalenian period (16,000-8,000 BCE), with the earliest examples dating from 15,000 BCE. However, human inhabitation lasted from Upper Solutrean times (c.16,500 BCE) until about 12,000 BCE when a rockfall sealed the cave's entrance, thus preserving its contents until its eventual discovery in the 19th century.

Environment and Conservation

Like many similar Stone Age caves, Altamira has been plagued by environmental and conservation problems. In 1977 the cave was closed for restoration purposes, and only reopened in 1982 for limited access, creating a 3-year waiting list for visitors. Fortunately, the Spanish Ministry of Culture has opened a replica cave and museum near the original complex. Other replicas are located in the National Archaeological Museum of Spain (Madrid).

 

Layout

The Altamira cave is roughly 300 metres in length, its main passageway varies from 2-6 metres in height, and consists of a series of twisting channels and chambers.

The Cave Art at Altamira

The pictures at Altamira are renowned for their extraordinary realism and colours. Subjects are mostly animals figures, painted with great accuracy in their physical proportions. The figures are outlined in a black manganese contour, then filled in with a variety of ochre pigments: the whole lending a remarkable volumetric quality to the works. If the earliest art of this type comes from Chauvet, probably the most magnificent comes from Altamira. See also: Petroglyphs.

Animal Paintings

The focus of these paintings is bison. Possibly this is because of the unique contribution made by this animal to Paleolithic life, which included its meat for food, its fur and hide for clothing and foot-coverings, and its horns, teeth and hooves for use as tool making equipment. The caves's main ceiling display features a herd of multi-coloured bison in different poses. Other animals portrayed in the cave's murals include reindeer, wild boar and goats - all native to Cantabria - with, as usual, no accompanying flora, vegetation or landscape.

Other Art

As well as pictures of animals, the Altamira cave contains a number of abstract images and geometric shapes, together with examples of human hand stencils, and humanoid masks. See also: Aboriginal Rock Art: Australia.

Painting Methods

The paintings at Altamira are unique for several reasons. First, they are composed of many different colours, more than is common in most other examples of parietal art (up to three colours in a single animal). Second, when arranging them, the Magdalenian artists took full advantage of the facets and angles of the rock surface to give their figures maximum impact.

For details of the colour pigments in Stone Age cave painting, see: Prehistoric Colour Palette.

• For the oldest art, see: Bhimbetka Petroglyphs (Cupules) - Venus of Berekhat Ram
• See also: Blombos Cave Art - Oldest Art - Top 50 Oldest Works of Art
• For more about prehistoric sculpture, see: Venus Figurines - Kostenky - Willendorf - Brassempouy
• For Classical Antiquity, see: Ancient Art.
• For the origins of painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.


ENCYCLOPEDIA OF STONE AGE ART
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