Altamira Cave’s recognition as the “Sistine Chapel of Quaternary Art” is well deserved, given the cave’s magnificent paintings (and engravings) and importance to our understanding of similarly decorated caverns throughout Europe. Found in 1879 by an intrepid little girl who happened to stumble upon this incredible find, Altamira Cave is located in northern Spain. The cave zigzags through the ground, extending almost 300 meters in total length. The ceiling varies in height to a maximum of 12 meters and in width to 20 meters. The age of the cave is a story in and of itself. While many scholars early on doubted Altamira Cave’s artwork was ancient in origin, its antiquity eventually became well established, with a large proportion of occupations of the cave occurring between 18,000 and 14,000 years before the present (BP) as determined in part through the use of carbon-14 dating of charcoal from artwork within the cave.
The paintings and engravings within Altamira Cave depict an assortment of abstract images, including a variety of animal species and miscellaneous designs. Often designed with the use of iron oxides to provide an array of colors, the images range from basic charcoal outlines to detailed color images. Designs vary from abstract images of bison, deer, stag, horses, goats, and humans to images whose identity is questionable.
Additional material discovered within Altamira Cave provides information regarding its human occupations. These miscellaneous items include a variety of lithics such as projectiles and multiuse tools as well as bone and antler tools. Other items found within Altamira Cave include the remains of multiple animal species including horse, goat, fish, and deer. Collectively, all the materials provide information regarding Paleolithic populations. However, one important question in particular remains unanswered. Why were the paintings and engravings made? Theories about the images being part of a ritual or a form of magic have circulated for years. The images have also been argued to be nothing more than art for art’s sake. Ultimately, we will likely never know the answer to this question.
Altamira Cave’s assemblage provides researchers with a glimpse of the activities carried out by its occupants, making Altamira a time capsule of sorts. Time is an especially important issue for Altamira Cave from one additional perspective: Time is a commodity that Altamira and other caves with Paleolithic art are running out of. The paintings within caves like Altamira have been adversely affected by changing environmental conditions partially caused by the volume of visitation these archaeological sites have received. Government agencies are now limiting visitors’ access to Altamira and other caves in an attempt to preserve the art within them. Time will tell if their efforts are successful in saving these relics of the distant past.
See also Anthropology; Chauvet Cave; Geology; Lascaux Cave; Olduvai Gorge
Laiz, L., Groth, I., Gonzalez, I. , & Saiz-Jimenez, C. (1999). Microbiological study of the dripping waters in Altamira cave (Santillana del Mar, Spain). Journal of Microbiological Methods, 36, 129-138.
Saura Ramos, P. A. (1999). The cave of Altamira. New York: Abrams.
Willermet, C. (2006). Altamira cave. In H. J. Birx (Ed.), Encyclopedia of anthropology (pp. 52-53). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.