6 Incredible Facts About the Prehistoric Altamira Cave Paintings

Prehistoric Cave Paintings at Altamira

Photo: Stock Photos from EQRoy/Shutterstock

When we think of what life must have been like in prehistoric times, we don't often leave much space to consider the art these people may have left behind. In reality, even 30,000 years ago, populations of people were producing what was—at the time—sophisticated works of art as a means of expression. Nothing exemplifies this more than the cave paintings at Altamira.

Located near Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Spain, the Altamira cave is a treasure trove of information about life in the Paleolithic period. From rudimentary stone tools to bone carvings, there are many artifacts that give a glimpse into daily life during the Stone Age. But, above all, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is known for its enormous collection of cave paintings.

Only discovered in the 19th century (because the entrance was covered during a rockfall), the well-preserved paintings revolutionized the way we think about prehistoric art. These incredible depictions of animals, hands, and abstract symbols remain vital in demonstrating just how sophisticated certain cultures got during the Paleolithic period.

Is your curiosity piqued? Read on to discover 6 incredible facts about the revolutionary Altamira cave paintings.

1880 Reproduction of Altamira Cave Paintings

Great Hall of Altamira. Polychrome reproduction from M. Sanz de Sautuola's 1880 publication. (Photo: Public domain via Wikipedia


A young girl's observations helped lead to their discovery.

The caves were first discovered in 1868 by a local hunter named Modest Cubillas. He told the owner of the cave, nobleman Marcelino Sanz de Sautola, about what he found, but Sanza de Sautola didn’t make his way to the caves until 1876. Once there, he wasn’t impressed by what he perceived as senseless symbols. But, after a trip to the 1878 Universal Exhibition in Paris, where he saw pieces of caved bone similar to what he’d seen in the cave, he realized that it was something special.

This led to him partnering with Juan Vilanova y Piera, an archeologist from the University of Madrid, to start excavations in 1879. At first, they began unearthing animal bones and small tools. It was actually Sanza de Sautola’s 8-year-old daughter Maria, who accompanied him to the caves one day, who first noticed paintings of bison within one of the chambers.

The findings of the excavations were published in 1880 but we were dismissed by most scholars, who took the paintings for modern forgeries. It was only at the turn of the twentieth century, when other similar paintings were found in the region, that they were acknowledged as the genuine artworks we know today.


Negative Hand Paintings at Altamira

Photo: Stock Photos from EQRoy/Shutterstock


The Altamira cave paintings were created over the course of 20,000 years.

We know that the cave was inhabited for millennia during the Paleolithic age, but scientists are still working to narrow the timeframe on exactly when the Altamira Cave paintings were created.

Based on the dating of different objects found in the caves, archeologists are certain that there were two main cultures that used the location—the Solutrean (about 21,000 to 17,000 years ago) and the Magdalenian (around 11,000 to 17,000 years old). These populations symbolize the apex of culture during the Upper Paleolithic Period and were known for their toolmaking and artistry. They would be responsible for the majority of the paintings at Altamira.

Using uranium-thorium dating, researchers in 2008 discovered that the paintings themselves were probably created over a span of 20,000 years. A later study in 2012 confirmed that there were at least 10,000 years between different paintings in the caves.


Reproduction of the Altamira Cave

Replica of the Altamira cave at the National Museum and Research Center of Altamira. (Photo: Stock Photos from EQRoy/Shutterstock)


Artists had cramped quarters to execute their paintings.

The Altamira cave is 971 feet long, and while humans only inhabited the entrance chamber, there are paintings found throughout the length of the cave. The artists had no problem going over other, previous paintings and so the cave has become a palimpsest of art.

Most of what Altamira is known for is painted on the roof, which is astounding when one considers that the chamber where most of the paintings are found has a variable height of 3.8 feet to 8.7 feet. This meant that most of the artists had to crouch down as they worked.

The work in this chamber is a combination of engraving and painting. Most figures were first etched into the stone with tools and then painted over in black, red, and violet hues. As the most realistic and sophisticated paintings, these were created by the later Magdalenian culture.


Great Deer Altamira Cave Painting

Photo: Stock Photos from Jesus de Fuensanta/Shutterstock


Animals are a dominant subject in the cave paintings.

With such a long period of production, it should come as no surprise that the cave paintings are quite varied. The most famous paintings in the cave are probably the 25 colored paintings of bison, deer, and horses etched and then painted on the roof of the cave. Impressively, one female deer measures over 6.5 feet. In terms of material, charcoal was used to make black lines, while they ground hematite to create the red ochre used to fill in shapes.

Older paintings in the caves include positive and negative images of hands, many depictions of deer, and “masks” created by strategically drawing eyes and a mouth around bumps in the stone. In fact, this technique was used throughout the history of the Altamira cave paintings, as the three dimensional quality of the rocks were used to give volume to figures.


Bison at Altamira

Photo: National Museum and Research Center of Altamira. Public domain via WikiCommons


Altamira shows an important step forward in the history of art.

Altamira is vital for learning more about daily life in the Paleolithic Period. In terms of art history, the cave paintings executed during the late Magdalenian culture, which include the bison and deer, are of vital importance. They show a realism and sophistication that is unparalleled for the time. In fact, the best example of art by the Magdalenian is located in Altamira.

Though the individual paintings don’t necessarily have a relationship or compositional tie between them, there is a sophistication in how volume, expressions, and perspective were shown that make them the high point of prehistoric art.


Charcoal Bison at the Altamira Caves

Photo: Stock Photos from Jesus de Fuensanta/Shutterstock


The paintings may have been used in religious rituals.

While researchers don’t know exactly why these cave paintings were created, their production certainly shows that these cultures had the leisure time to produce them. This points to cultures that weren't only surviving, but thriving. In terms of a specific purpose, some experts believe that the paintings may have been used during a ritual where a shaman would enter the cave and go into a trance in order to make contact with spirits.


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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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