Altamira Cave: History, Paintings & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Altamira is a very famous cave in Spain, but why? In this lesson, we are going to explore Altamira and see what it tells us about some of Europe's very first master artists.

Altamira Cave

Today, when you want to see works of art, you go to the museum, or maybe the internet. Either way, we expect to find art in places that are accessible, well lit, and open. These same words aren't often applied to caves, but it was in dark, cramped subterranean caverns that early humans may have showcased some of their finest artwork.

Cave art has fascinated us for a long time, but we didn't always have a good idea just how ancient this tradition was. That was the case until the discovery of Altamira, a Paleolithic cave in Cantabria, Spain. The Altamira cave system may seem dark and dank from the outside, but take a few steps into the darkness and one of humanity's oldest and greatest art galleries awaits.


In the 19th century, Europeans were busy debating the age of their own civilizations. How old was Western culture? When did humans first arrive in Europe? When did humanity develop things like art? Some of these questions would be answered in 1868 when a Spanish hunter named Modesto Cubillas discovered the entrance to a cave that had been previously covered by an earthquake. Inside, Cubillas was amazed to find cave paintings unlike anything he'd ever heard of.

Cubillas told a local educated nobleman named Marcelino Sanz de Sautola about the cave. Sanz de Sautola inspected the cave himself in 1875. Three years later, he learned about similar discoveries in French caves while attending the Paris World Fair. The Spaniard decided to mount a full excavation of Altamira, which began in 1879. Sautola published his findings, describing incredible cave paintings and claiming that they were prehistoric in age. Most people of the time believed this was simply too old and dismissed Altamira as irrelevant.

Marcelino Sanz de Sautola

Researchers later reexamined Altamira in the early 20th century and vindicated Sans de Sautola. He was right; this cave was special. Altamira ended up bing the first place in Europe to definitively prove that humans were not only living in the continent during the Upper Paleolithic period, which began about 40,000 years ago, but that they were also producing incredible art. Continual studies on Altamira, some as recent as 2006, have identified at least eight major eras of occupation at the cave site. The oldest definitive dates extend back to roughly 20,000 BCE, with new evidence suggesting that some human elements of the cave have a minimum age of 30-34,000 BCE.

Rooms and Paintings

What we know today is that Altamira was occupied by humans, possibly intermittently, over thousands and thousands of years. The evidence for this comes from three main sections of the cave system. First is the entrance. This is where ancient people actually lived, building fires, carving stone tools and eating their meals. All of these activities left behind archeological evidence for us to find.

Beyond that is the polychrome room and gallery, chambers beyond the reach of natural light. It's in these rooms that archeologists found the cave paintings that made Altamira famous. So what did ancient people paint? For the most part, Altamira is covered in images of animals like bison, deer and horses. However, there are also anthropomorphic figures (animals with human characteristics), as well as human handprints and a wide array of abstract and geometric shapes.

Animals like these horses are common throughout Altamira

This artwork can be found in one of three styles. First are the black drawings, monochromatic figures outlined with black charcoal. Second are engravings, figures carved into the wall rather than solely painted onto it. Finally are the polychromatic paintings. These are the most famous elements of Altamira because it's rare to find ancient art in multiple colors. In fact, some bison and deer of Altamira include as many as three colors in a single painting.

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