Altamira—The First Art Masterpieces in the World

Highly naturalistic, the musculature and enormous size of the adult male bison, beautiful and almost kinaesthetic 14,500 BP
Highly naturalistic, the musculature and enormous size of the adult male bison, beautiful and almost kinaesthetic 14,500 BP

To be astonished by art is surely one of the most satisfying delights of travel, of life, yes?

For our first blog of the new decade Magellan and I were wavering: Norway’s Edvard Munch (The Scream) or Altamira (“The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory”)? A cartoon in The New Yorker swayed us to the latter, the first discovery of art from the Upper Palaeolithic—carbon-dated to 35,600 years ago—unique for its high quality and magnificent conservation.

The New Yorker, December 16, 2019

Detractions, of which Altamira has its share, made us question a trip.

First of all, you can’t visit the real cave. Well okay, you can, if you win the lottery. Every Friday the cave is open to five guests via a show-up-and-take-a-chance lottery. Rather than linger in the area, northern Spain about 135 kilometres west of Bilbao, and take our chances, Magellan and I visited the Neocave—a fantastic and exacting replica of the original—on a Thursday.

And why is the real cave closed?

About 13,000 BP a rockslide sealed off the cave. The cavity was discovered by a local man, Modesto Cubillas, around 1868. In 1879 the nobleman landowner, an amateur archeologist named Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, was brushing away at the floor of the cave searching for prehistoric tools. But it wasn’t him who discovered Altamira’s art. Marcelino was accompanied by his daughter, eight-year-old Maria who was exploring further into the cave, looked up at the ceiling and exclaimed, in Spanish of course, ”Look Papa! Bulls!”

Marcelino published news of Altamira in 1880. But he was ridiculed and accused of art forgery. The prehistoric polychrome images of bison, aurochs, deer, boars and horses are of such vividity and high quality that his contemporaries doubted their authenticity.

Marcelino would likely have noted that the Altamira cave is 270 metres long and its height varies from 1.15 metres to 2.65 metres. Most of the hundreds of paintings measure 18 metres by 9 metres and are a vivid polychrome of red, black and violet. In addition to animal figures, painted, drawn and engraved—sometimes all three in one artwork—there are anthropomorphic figures and various handprints (three new ones were discovered in 2019). We were amazed, as Marcelino and Maria likely were, at how the artists imaginatively incorporated the natural contours of rock surfaces to enhance shape and volume. A small hole in the rock became a horse’s eye, a bulge in the cave’s ceiling became the belly of a pregnant deer and a crack in the rock turned into part of a horse’s leg.

Skeptical that savages could have produced such sophisticated paintings, Émile Cartailhac, a French archaeologist and one of the founding fathers of the studies of the cave art, dismissed Altamira as a fraud and didn’t bother to send anyone to Spain to have a look. Marcelino died in 1888, four years before the error was admitted. It took until 1902 before Altamira was officially recognized.

Scholars and visitors soon began arriving to view these polychromes. By the 1970s, more than 150,000 people a year were visiting, so many that their body heat and carbon dioxide were damaging the paintings. In 1977 Altamira was closed. (Prehistoric civilizations used the caves where they created art for ceremonial and ritualistic purposes; they didn’t live in these caves, which is why the vivid images were not damaged by fire, light and excessive human contact.) Altamira reopened with a quota limiting access to 8,500 visitors a year, which resulted in three-year wait lists.

In 1985 Altamira was declared a World Heritage Site.

Closure happened again. An algae-like green mould started growing on some of the paintings, damage attributed to visitors and artificial light. In 2002, Altamira’s original cave was completely closed and plans began to develop a replica cave.

Magellan and I were among the 250,000 people that visit Altamira every year—and as jubilados it’s free!

As in most art galleries, you’re not allowed to use flash in the Neocave, which in its simulation of the real cave, is pitch dark, so dark we had to push our ISO to the ceiling—16,000 compared to the normal 100.

The site is organized into The First Art, Before Altamira, Life in the Times of Altamira and Museo de Altamira.  The museum does a good job of showing the time span of civilization from Neanderthals to Homo sapiens who both settled here because of the bounty of provisions from land and sea. In a logical and concise way it gives you context, connecting Altamira to other prehistoric civilizations. It was shocking to see a Neanderthal skull, 180,000 years old, about one-third the size of Magellan’s. (He has a big head.) Multimedia is cleverly used, like the projection of a neolithic family around a campfire and a video showing prehistoric drawing methods. Still, mystery abounds. What do the abstract designs scattered between the animals mean? Why are some of the handprints positive while others are negative with the charcoal outline of a hand but not painted within?

The discovery of Altamira had a revolutionary impact on European prehistory. Before that it was assumed all cave art dated from the same period and was created in one session rather than added to, refreshed and painted over for a period of 20,000 years.

Altamira also left strong marks on subsequent art. When the authenticity of Altamira’s cave paintings was being debated in 1882, John Singer Sargent added to his painting “El Jaleo” a sepia drawing of an aurochs and a handprint. In Picasso’s work you see the retroactive animation and red ochre of Altamira’s bulls. “After Altamira, all is decadence,” he said.

“Good art evicts intelligence from its left-brain command centre into other parts of the brain, and of the body,” writes Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker. “It does this by some or another touch or twist of beauty, which can’t be conceptualized but only undergone, like a beneficent seizure.”

Altamira seized us.


Here’s Altamira’s website.

Schjeldahl, Peter. “Of Ourselves and of Our Origins: Subjects of Art.” Frieze lecture, March 1, 2011.

4 Responses

    1. We’ve enjoyed comparing the art, the similarities and differences, the strengths and advances, in Altamira and other caves/outdoor spaces in Spain and Portugal compared to that in the Southwestern US.

  1. The drawings/etchings seem to avoid time, very, very awesome.

    BP is I believe, carbon dating, Before People/Before Present or ?

    Considering our current concern with carbon and it’s overuse/abuse I must question the accuracy of such a dating scheme/scale in reference to time?

    As art is always in a state of flux regarding time, let us enjoy each work for what it means to the viewer.

    As in nature, seeing is believing.

    Cheers for 2020 and beyond, to all.

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