Ancient Art and the Cave of Altamira


Many ancient pieces of art familiar to mankind today were discovered relatively recently. For example, the Cave of Altamira, a cave located in Cantabria, Spain, the site that contains paintings from over 35,000 years ago, was discovered as recently as 1879.

During that year of 1879, a 12-year-old girl accompanied her father on an expedition to learn more about his property in Altamira. The girl, whose name was Maria, noticed a small opening in the ground during that trip and subsequently found a cave that the opening led to. The ceiling of the cave was decorated with pictures that experts later established to be over 30,000 years old.

Altamira was the first cave in Europe to contain paintings that scientists believed to date that far back. Today, UNESCO has declared the Cave to be a World Heritage Site.

The Cave of Altamira is about 1,000 meters long. It consists of a number of twisting passages. The height of the main area varies from two to six meters. On the floor of the cave, scientists found artefacts dating back about 18,500 years and 14,000 years. Researchers believe that animals lived in the cave between two separate periods of habitation by humans. Paintings span the entire length of the cave and were created with charcoal and ochre. The artists ingeniously used the natural curves of the cave walls to make their paintings appear three-dimensional.

One interesting fact is that the paintings not only depict wildlife and people, but also include abstract shapes. Scientists have discovered many other caves on the territory of Spain, but no other cave has images and art as complex, rich, and abstract as that of Altamira. In this modern age, such sophistication might be taken for granted, but it’s extraordinary from early cave dwellers.

The fact that Maria and her father Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola discovered the caves in 1879 doesn’t mean that scientists examined the cave right away. Sautuola and an archaeologist who worked for the University of Madrid began work on excavating the cave in 1880. For about a decade, the scientific community was suspicious about the findings and it was only in 1902 that several other discoveries gave evidence as to the extreme antiquity of the art found in Altamira.