Sometimes you have to be grateful to animals and children. Without a hunting dog and a little girl, the caves of Altamira and their treasure might never have been discovered…
The discovery of the cave
The year is 1868 when a hunting dog belonging to a local hunter suddenly disappears. The search begins and eventually the people present discover an entrance into a mountain from which a dog can clearly be heard. The hunter goes into the mountain to save his dog and discovers a cave there. He returns to the surface with his dog and immediately tells the landlord of Santillana.
Some landlords might have just closed the entrance. Not so this landowner. For the natural scientist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, this discovery was so interesting that he wanted to take a look at the cave himself. With his little daughter Maria, he set out on an “expedition” into the unknown.
The cave turned out to be relatively shallow and Sautuolas could not walk upright in it. This was no problem for Maria and in the dim glow of the light she looked around with interest. Until… yes until she discovered pictures on the cave ceiling that looked like “cattle”. She enthusiastically showed them to her father.
What a discovery!
Sautuolas began to explore the cave more closely in 1879 and undertook excavations. He discovered various animals on the walls painted in shades of red and brown and published a description of his discoveries. Experts doubted the authenticity of the drawings. There were even claims that it was a prank by a scribbler, the work of an untalented modern artist. Researchers and scholars refused to examine the drawings on site.
It was to be almost 23 years before the discovery finally became of interest to scientists. When similar paintings were found in France in 1901, some of the experts apologised to Sautuolas. Unfortunately, Sautuolas did not live to see this.
What did Maria really see?
The cave found is about 5500 m² in size. Research assumes that it was inhabited from 33,600 BC until the entrance collapsed in 11,000 BC.
The Altamira cave contains about 930 Paleolithic images. There are incised drawings, charcoal drawings and coloured representations. The inhabitants of the cave used charcoal, red chalk, various shades of ochre and manganese earth. Mixed with fat or egg white, these could then be used like paints. Researchers even suspect that a kind of brush consisting of a feather was used to paint. However, tubular bones through which the dye was blown could also have been used. In some places, the application of paint by hand is clearly visible.
On display are images of deer, bison, hinds, horses and wild boars.
According to the latest research, the particularly impressive ceiling paintings can be attributed to the period 16,500 to 13,000 BC.
The Museum in Altamira
For many years, the drawings in the cave attracted visitors. The changes in the air in the cave and the safety measures caused serious damage to the murals. It was decided in 1979 to close the cave with a heavy heart.
The further development of technology finally made it possible to recreate the cave true to the original. Over 40,000 survey points per square metre were thus able to create an excellent image. Using foam sheets and painted mats, researchers recreated the cave so amazingly well.
I was able to discover the real entrance to the cave between the trees in the open-air area of the museum. Not far from there is the visitor centre with the entrance to the cave replica.
The crowd is quite large and it is advisable to book the entrance ticket in advance. Access to the cave is only possible within a fixed timeslot.
Through a door I first entered a small screening room. Here a short film about the cave is shown. Then you enter the reconstructed cave. And quite honestly, if it weren’t for the modern footpaths, light installations and display boards, you might think the cave was real.
The walls, the ceiling and even the entrance look deceptively real. In the lower area I can finally see the paintings on the ceiling. They are not spread out over a larger area like in the real cave, but are close together. However, the scientists and artists have made sure that, for example, unevenness in the stone, which gives the animal an inimitable character, is also included in the replica. I think it is successful and I am really impressed. What great drawings!
The Altamira Cave and UNESCO
In 1985, UNESCO put the Altamira Cave on the World Heritage List. After researchers discovered other caves in the region, UNESCO added them to the World Heritage List in 2008. Since then, the World Heritage Site has been called “Altamira Cave and Palaeolithic Cave Paintings in Northern Spain”.
Tip for cinema fans
A film with Antonio Banderes was released in 2016. “Finding Altamira” shows the story around the cave. The film was made in the region. Hugh Hudson was the director.
The visit to the cave took place during a press trip with the Costa Verde Express.