The Great Altamira Cave

This bison is on the ceiling of a cave in Spain called Altamira.

It was painted about 14,000 years ago. Not only is it beautiful, it seems to be charging.
It is one of nearly a hundred figures on that ceiling, which someone has called “the Sistine Chapel of prehistory”.

The figures are drawn in a style that looks modern to us, like some of the graphic experiments of the twentieth century. Picasso himself came out of the cave impressed: “After Altamira,” he said, “all is decadence.”

Most cave drawings are mere outlines but these are filled in with color that varies in intensity, giving them a chiaroscuro effect and even the look of volume. The artist also took advantage of the irregularities in the rock surface to make his figures or parts of them stand out in relief. He was a real master.

Why did he paint the ceiling? Scientists wish they knew.
The figures don’t make a nice composition like Michelangelo’s famous work. They are painted here and there and any which way, some facing one way, some another, in many sizes and scales. The artist seems to have chosen a free area on the ceiling and worked standing in the most comfortable way he could. It was pitch dark in there, remember. He had to work with a torch or an oil lamp. It is hard to imagine how he could have avoided covering the ceiling with soot.

One theory is that the animals had a magic purpose. The artist painted them to scare up the game, as it were; though “game” is a silly word for those days when the hunt was no sport. Or perhaps he painted them to give thanks to an unseen Power for supplying him with food.
It is hard to believe that he painted a pretty animal because he had the artist’s itch. Or because he wanted to adorn his bedroom. The chamber with the paintings is in a part of the cave where no one ever lived.

Yet they are better than mere magic signs. They are based on close observation and streamlined in a way that only a great artist can do.

Another mystery has come up recently. Scientists believe they have discovered that some of those figures were painted thousands of years after others. See that story here (as well as other very interesting posts on art and history). A long dark Ice Age would have passed like a winter; and in the spring of a new Time some artist tried to imitate the Old Master?

13,000 years ago a rock-slide closed the entrance and until 1879 no one ever went in there again. A hole opened up in the ground and a little girl ventured down like Alice in Wonderland. She ran to get her father, an amateur archaeologist. When he told the world what his daughter had discovered, no one would believe him. No prehistoric paintings like those had ever been seen. And they looked suspiciously modern. After a long debate the experts finally withdrew their objections and declared the paintings genuine. After that, people began to visit the Altamira cave in greater and greater numbers until the authorities decided to close it because the paintings showed damage from the moisture and heat that rose from the visitors.
Recently the Spanish government inaugurated a replica of the cave chamber with the paintings. Here is a photo of the event, with King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia.

The ceiling figures are not the only ones in the cave. Here is a very large deer, 2.25 meters long, painted on the wall of another chamber.

Gran Cierva

The Altamira cave, which the UNESCO has declared a World Heritage site, is near Santander, the capital of the Autonomous Region of Cantabria in the north of Spain.

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13 Responses to The Great Altamira Cave

  1. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Vlado. I have no idea what example or painting predecessors the Altamira artist had, though there are many cave drawings of animals around, some of them showing much practice at drawing. The Altamira paintings were made at least ten thousand years ago and there is only conjecture about those times. Thinking alone won’t solve the mystery. Remember that just having animals around and seeing them daily and knowing their habits won’t lead most people to draw them (let alone paint them). And a knowledge of their anatomy will not even make most artists render them “realistically”, i.e. showing those bones and muscles, which is a style.

  2. Vlado says:


    I have a simple question for you. The renaissance was triggered by, among other factors, the rediscovery of Roman (who basically copied the Greeks) examples of Classical Art. With all the respect to the Genius of Michelangelo, he had the example of the ancient art to go and learn by. Same goes for Da Vinci and all of the others from that period. And here is the question:

    Who’s example the Altamira artist had? What art academy did he go to?

    After answering this question, take a pause and think again about the “sonnet” deal.

    The animals are so realistic and so well done for two reasons. The obvious one is apparently the genius of the artist. The second is that animals were the one item that the life of the cave man depended on. They knew these animals because they were their food, they were focused on these animals at every moment of theyr lives. They stalked them, hunted them daily, they skinned them (hence the knowledge of the internal anatomy – muscles composition, bone structure, proportions, etc.). Knowing thsese beasts meant survival. In comparison, in a few places among the animals there are humans depicted and they are no more than a stick figures drawn by a three year old… So enough divine or ET intervention. Think.

  3. richard says:

    visited Altamira in 97 with my family, camped outside the cave for 3 days in the car park, the custodian eventually took pity on our determination and took us all inside in two separate groups. I have visited Notre Dame, the Parthenon, empire state, the grand canyon and work in the Anti Atlas and Sahara regularly and other such places around the world, I will never forget Altamira, the feelings i had there will stay with me forever, as strong today as then, in awe u stand and look into the feelings of men thousands of years ago, there is nothing else to compare to this moving sentiment as you look into the eyes of our ancestors and back through their eyes at the greatest art ever produced, learning what their conscious thoughts poured out in rich vibrant colours, these treasures are more important than all of Rome put together, for me personally. his is conceptual art at a highest level, these artists stood on no one else’s shoulders [metaphorically speaking] as far as we now know. They created all that time ago a new art form. I remember thinking then and have ever since that early man was a being of much more sophistication than we had and still do give credit for.
    This is being born out now in latest discoveries pushing back timeline limits and bringing forward technological prehistoric enterprises, showing how we have underestimated our ancestor dexterity and intelligence and heart. It takes a long time to gain the skill to master such things as these paintings at Altamira, generations and one genius in each generation to give us all inspiration.

  4. hi!chrisforshort says:

    They used natural means of painting those beautiful animal pictures.:) Maybe, mud? sulfur(yellow), iron rust or blood(red), leaf pigments(green), coal(black) and others..I’m not sure though..:)

  5. Hesh Rathnayake says:

    Wow….the way of prehistoric people used colours are amazing. How prehistoric human could draw these paintings very clearly & colorfully.Do they got help of some strangers !!!!!!!!!!?. that’s the point we must pay attention. whatever ALTAMIRA got really great paintings among the prehistoric paintings. paintings like those had never ever been seen before by me.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The Romans because they saw an area with beautiful landscape.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Who named it “Altamera” why?

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  9. 100swallows says:

    Thanks for the source of that Sistine Ceiling quote. When I first heard it I thought whoever said it had gone far over the top. After all, there’s no organization to the cave paintings and while they show imagination and real drawing ability, they are a doodle compared to the ambitious work of Michelangelo—say, a sonnet compared to a great poem like Dante’s Divine Comedy. But then I thought about the advantages of tradition and example and the absence of them. And again gave the cave artist very high points.

  10. Matilde says:

    nice work, btw it’s been Joseph Déchelette who said Altamira was Cappella Sistina of Prehistory =)

  11. Chris Buckley says:

    Modern humans they reckon, as the dates they have for the cave (c.18.5kya at the oldest) generally succeed the last known Neanderthals. Additionally, there are no known examples of artwork by Neanderthals – that is, which date to a similar period as occupied by the Neanderthals – however, as they say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence! It is entirely plausible that artwork was created at an earlier date than all known examples by Neanderthals, but was of a nature that denied its survival a good 30ky further on. I doubt, however, if such artwork could ever be found in the archaeological record.
    Alternatively, it is equally plausible that such abstract capabilities as art and music etc were indigenous only to Homo sapiens sapiens, and came into being amongst a cultural revolution in which the Neanderthals had no participation…

    … It’s an ongoing debate!

  12. Eileen says:

    Do they think these were done by modern humans, or Neadrathals?


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