The Cave of Altamira in Cantabria contain some of the most well-preserved Paleolithic cave paintings in Europe. Located just outside the town of Santillana del Mar, these caves were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
The caves were formed naturally by erosion from the Altamira River and were inhabited during the Upper Paleolithic period, some 35,000 to 11,000 years ago. Evidence suggests that the occupants of the caves were groups of hunter-gatherer groups who used them from time to time as temporary shelter. These groups would have used rudimentary tools made of stone, bone and wood.
It was during this time that the cave walls were decorated with remarkably lifelike paintings of bison, horses and deer as well as other abstract shapes. The artists used charcoal and ochre pigments made from iron oxide or hematite to create the paintings. The largest chamber, known as the Hall of the Bulls, contains a remarkable 5 metre long mural of a bull on its ceiling. Other chambers feature paintings of various animals, handprints, and mysterious abstract symbols.
Discovery of the Cave of Altamira
The caves were rediscovered in 1879 by a local hunter named Modesto Cubillas. He reported his stunning find to Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, a Spanish scholar and prehistorian who lived nearby. Sautuola excavated parts of the cave and was the first to understand the prehistoric origins of the artwork. In 1880, he published his research, hypothesizing that the paintings were created by primitive cave dwellers.
At the time, most scholars firmly rejected his theory, insisting that prehistoric humans were incapable of such advanced artistry. It would be decades before Sautuola’s revolutionary conclusions were accepted by the scientific community.
Visiting the Cave of Altamira
If you’re hoping to visit the Cave of Altamira you’re probably going to be disappointed as the original caves are mostly closed to the public. This ensures that humidity, temperature and carbon dioxide levels can be maintained. There is, however, a lottery system which allows 37 lucky visitors per week to visit the original caves. Such a strict visitation limit is an indication of just how fragile the cave paintings are, and how much effort goes into their conservation.
Fortunately, assuming you don’t win the lottery, there is an excellent replica cave just 200 metres away which is open to the public. The Altamira National Museum and Research Centre is an impressive museum which allows visitors to appreciate these incredible Paleolithic cave paintings without endangering the originals. It is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Cantabria.
Altamira National Museum and Research Centre
The replica caves at the Museum of Altamira are high quality and worth visiting. Experts spent over 20 years perfecting the replicas to accurately portray the real caves. They used 3D scanning, specialized molding and casting techniques, precision measurements, and carefully formulated paints to mimic the originals.
The result is an extremely detailed reproduction of the chambers, textures, shapes, and prehistoric paintings. The replicas effectively capture the awe and colors of the 16,000 year old artwork. They provide the full experience of seeing the paintings’ size, artistic techniques, and positioning within the caves.
The museum also has great educational exhibits that give context on Paleolithic history, archaeology, and artist techniques used. Visitors often say the replicas amazingly similar to actually being inside the real caves. They offer an unforgettable immersive experience.
Archaeological Museum of Madrid
Museums are always seeking to acquire the best collections of original artifacts to attract history-hungry visitors. However, it is not always possible to display unique objects, either because they cannot be exhibited or another museum already owns them. Because of this, many opt to create precise replicas that can substitute for the lack of original objects. This is what happened with the Cave of Altamira which are on display at the Archaeological Museum of Madrid (MAM).
Whilst this museum is best known for hosting iconic figures such as the Lady of Elche and the Lady of Baza, it also has an attraction which isn’t well known in Madrid. Within the gardens of the Archaeological Museum, facing Calle Serrano, there is an exact replica of the Caves of Altamira. This is a great opportunity for visitors to the Capital to see a perfect copy of these remarkable Paleolithic cave paintings.