Cover image for The cave of Altamira
The cave of Altamira
Saura Ramos, Pedro A.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Altamira. English.
Publication Information:
New York : Harry Abrams, 1999.
Physical Description:
180 pages : color illustrations ; 32 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GN772.22.S7 S2813 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Oversize
GN772.22.S7 S2813 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area-Oversize

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Today the cave of Altamira in northern Spain, with its famous ceiling decorated with magnificent painted figures of bison, horses, deer, and wild cattle, is acknowledged as one of the great monuments of prehistoric art.It seems surprising, therefore, that when the cave was first discovered in 1879 and presented to the scholarly world, it was greeted with scepticism ranging from mild caution to outright contempt. The reasons for this reaction were many. The discoverer of the cave, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, was not an academic prehistorian. Moreover, everything about Altamira seemed excessive: its great antiquity, its vast size, the astonishing quality of its paintings. Nothing even remotely like it had been seen before.Scholars in the late nineteenth century believed that Paleolithic people were capable of little more than instinctive action. However, the drawings, engravings, and especially the paintings in the Polychrome Chamber at Altamira were clearly the work of artists whose mastery of their media and artistic sensibilities rivaled those of the great European masters. If the art at Altamira was genuine, theories accepted by the most distinguished authorities on prehistoric art would have to be discarded. Not surprisingly, there was considerable resistance to accepting the authenticity of the paintings. The result was that one of the greatest works of Paleolithic art was virtually ignored for more than twenty years.As time went on, however, opinions began to change. New discoveries during the 1890s and early in the twentieth century brought to light a wealth of Paleolithic artifacts and paintings that looked strikingly like the art at Altamira. By 1905 the paintings inthe cave were finally accepted as what they are: some of the finest and most important surviving works of prehistoric art.This beautiful book presents a fresh look at the cave at Altamira in light of the many exciting disco

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Although the cave at Lascaux in France is undoubtedly better known to nonspecialists, Spain's Altamira cave deserves as much renown, as this splendid selection of photographs attests. Discovered in the 1870s, the cave was for a time considered fraudulent because of the beautiful and fresh appearance of its paintings and carvings. Comprehensive but accessible chapters provide information on the cave's art, the difficulties involved in its conservation, and what is known about the artists who created it, including what has been suggested about the purpose and use of the artwork. But the book's main attraction is unquestionably Pedro S. Saura Ramos' excellent photography of the art. The technical aspects of his work are not to be underestimated: Ramos captured exact likenesses of this ancient artwork in dark caverns, at odd angles, and without damaging it. That such photographs exist to document the glorious Altamira work is commendable. That they are so evocative and passionate is a precious gift. --Patricia Monaghan

Library Journal Review

In 1879, the discovery of vividly painted animals and abstract symbols in the Altamira cave in Spain sparked a continuing fascination with and curiosity about Paleolithic creativity. While Altamira has been mentioned in recent books on the subject, e.g., The Shamans of Prehistory: Trance and Magic in the Painted Caves (LJ 2/1/99), this collection of essays updates the information and images documented by excavators Henri Breuil and Hugo Obermaier in their 1935 monograph, The Cave of Altamira at Santillana del Mar, Spain. Since the cave is now restricted to protect the paintings, the detailed photographs by Saura Ramos (photography, Univ. of Madrid) offer an excellent visual experience to armchair visitors. Included are reports on new radiocarbon dates by Federico Bernaldo de Quir¢s and P‚rez-Seoane's experiences duplicating prehistoric artistic processes. Other Spanish experts give historical overviews and discuss conservation problems. An important acquisition for public and academic libraries.ÄAnne Marie Lane, American Heritage Ctr., Laramie, WY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One THE CAVE AND ITS SURROUNDINGS by José Antonio Lasheras Corruchaga The town of Santillana del Mar is distinguished by its rich heritage of art and architecture. At its center, a handsome Romanesque collegiate church stands in the midst of a group of fine houses and palaces belonging to various noble families, whose lineage is proclaimed by the coats of arms on their façades. This architectural complex was officially recognized as such as early as the mid-nineteenth century, after which efforts were made both locally and from elsewhere to guarantee its current state of preservation. Santillana's most important treasure, however, located outside the town itself, dates to the Paleolithic period, when the presence of man in this area is first recorded: the cave of Altamira.     The cave of Altamira opens into one of the limestone hillocks that gently rise around Santillana, forming a small valley. The subsoil here is formed by parallel, almost horizontal, strata of calcareous rock up to one meter thick, interspersed with fine layers of clay. The cave forms part of a Pliocene karst, that is, a landscape composed largely of limestone with its principal drainage underground. Ground sinkage and cave-ins are common in karst topographies, and the present form of the cave at Altamira is largely the result of such activity, modified by the intense vertical fracturing of the strata, which has produced flat ceilings and trapezoidal sections. These structures are unstable, which explains the collapses of various parts of the cave that have occurred since its discovery. The cave's general instability is apparent also in the recent emergence of numerous fissures and the sinking of the ground of the chamber of the cave known as the Pit ( la hoya ). Unfortunately, the geological formation of the cave makes it almost inevitable that there will be more collapses and further sinking, although how great these changes might be or when they are likely to occur is, of course, unpredictable.     The cave's only mouth opens to the north, 156 meters above sea level, five kilometers from the sea and 120 meters above the nearby Saja River, which is just over two kilometers away. The cave is 270 meters long; in the main gallery its height varies between two and twelve meters and the width between six and twenty meters. The final section is a narrow corridor, almost completely filled with clay deposits, of scarcely one meter and a half in width and height, and known as the Horse's Tail ( cola de caballo ), covered with small engravings, drawings, and signs of habitation. The ceiling of the whole cave is very close to the surface, about nine meters below ground level, on average, along its entire length. The cave's short distance beneath the surface of the ground, and the numerous cracks that run through the strata mean that rainwater filters through the cavern with considerable ease.     The landscape above the cave is thoroughly marked by human habitation. To the west are the Picos de Europa mountains, which are snow-covered for most of the year. Toward the south and the east are the Cordillera Cantábrica, or Cantabrian Hills, and toward the north is the sea, hidden behind the surrounding hillsides. Pasture land predominates in this area, the fields created to feed the herds of cattle belonging to humble family farmsteads. The vegetation includes recently imported eucalyptus, residues of formerly luxuriant woodland, and a few native tree species such as oak, ash, and chestnut. Shrubs such as elderberry and bramble join forces to form living fences that reinforce the low stone walls that border the small properties. Everything is laid out in a huge, irregular green mosaic, created with the help of a damp, temperate climate.     It must be remembered that the landscape that now surrounds Altamira is very different from the one that existed in prehistoric times. During the Late Pleistocene the average temperature was as much as ten degrees below that prevailing today, and the climate sustained an entirely different kind of vegetation, which formed the staple diet of the bison, aurochs, deer, horses, and goats that we see drawn and painted on the walls and ceilings of the cave. THE STORY OF THE CAVE'S DISCOVERY The early history of Altamira ended 13,000 years ago, when the cave was closed by the collapse of the first six meters (a little less than twenty feet) of the vault over the area that Paleolithic human groups had occupied as living space. Shortly before this occurred, people of the Magdalenian culture had lived there and produced the last of the paintings that can be seen in the cave today, possibly the small black bison on the polychrome ceiling. That remote event marked the beginning of a long parenthesis in which human presence in the cave ceased until its chance discovery in the latter half of last century.     The story of the discovery of the finest prehistoric paintings that we know of is a fascinating one, a genuine historical milestone that encompasses a curious mixture of anecdote, coincidence, and calculation. Around 1868 a hunter found a crevice in a hillside that led into the cave, and some years later showed it to Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who owned a manor in the neighboring village of Reocín. Sautuola was a man of academic training, a law graduate, whose scientific curiosity led him to study not only local history but also the natural sciences, and to collect antiques, insects, fossils, and minerals. His natural curiosity led him to make an initial reconnoiter of the cave, in which he observed strange black drawings to which at the time he attached little importance.     In 1878 Sautuola visited the Paris World Exposition, where he became fascinated by the collections of prehistoric objects that had been discovered in France. Seeing these artifacts inspired him to carry out investigations in his own region, and to this end, he visited a number of caves, Altamira among them. In 1879 he excavated the area close to the entrance, where he found stone and bone implements, among other remains. During one of his excavations he was accompanied by his daughter María, who wandered into the cave, and was the first to see the figures painted on the ceiling. "Look, Daddy, oxen!" were her exact words. When Sautuola looked for himself, he saw that the ceiling contained around thirty large, almost life-size polychrome figures and many drawings and engravings. These astonished him, for nothing like this ceiling had been discovered at that time. Fully aware of the magnitude of this find, Sautuola also knew that he would encounter many obstacles to the ceiling's acceptance by scholars.     In the following year, 1880, Sautuola published a booklet entitled Breves apuntes sobre algunos objetos prehistóricos de la provincia de Santander (Brief Notes on Some Prehistoric Objects from the Province of Santander), in which he described stone and bone implements, ornaments, mineral pigments, and the leftovers of food that he had found in his excavations. He then proceeded to analyze the paintings at Altamira; he identified the extinct bison and stressed the great artistic quality of the figures depicted and the skill of the artists who had painted them. He associated the objects found at Altamira with examples from other European sites, identified the earth colors used in the paintings, and showed the relationship between the prehistoric engravings on bone discovered earlier in France with the figures at Altamira. Sautuola had no doubts about the matter: all of these works, objects and paintings alike, were Paleolithic, and belonged to the dawn of human history.     It was the geologist Juan Vilanova y Piera, professor at the University of Madrid, who took on the responsibility of presenting the discovery at different prehistory congresses in Portugal, Germany, France, Spain, and elsewhere. His astonishing contribution to scientific knowledge, however, was rejected. In France, where all of the most highly esteemed prehistorians were gathered, reactions to the discovery ranged from prudence to open contempt. Everything about Altamira seemed excessive, both its antiquity and the magnitude and the quality of the paintings. Moreover, it had all happened too suddenly; practically nobody was prepared for such a revelation. The discovery had not been foreseen, and consequently one of the earliest existing of humanity's artistic milestones, one of the earliest works of great art, was overlooked and relegated to oblivion for over twenty years.     At this point it might be expedient to look at a few details that reveal the state of the science of prehistory at that time. It was in 1849 that Boucher de Perthes published the first treatise in this field, entitled Antiquités celtiques et antédiluviennes; in 1856 the first Neanderthal remains were discovered in Germany; and in 1859 the prehistoric site of Saint-Acheul was excavated in France. That same year Darwin published The Origin of Species , and in 1871 The Origin of Man . Naturally, many scholarly debates resulted from these discoveries and publications, and prehistory began to occupy its rightful place among the sciences. In the 1870s the relationships linking the science of evolution to those of geology, paleontology, and prehistory had yet to be established. However, even at this early and rather limited stage in their theorizing, evolutionists (as most prehistorians were) found the unique character of Altamira difficult to ignore. One scholar, Gabriel de Mortillet, thought that the paintings were a hoax, deliberately created to make fools of paleontologists and prehistorians, while another, Émile Cartailhac, contended that they had been painted by conservative Spanish clerics intent on defending a belief in divine creation. The extreme caution of these views may have in part reflected a normal scholarly pride in taking care not to accept any new theory without sufficient evidence.     Perhaps one reason for the resistance to the acceptance of Altamira's authenticity was simply that so many new discoveries relating to the prehistory of mankind were coming one after the other so quickly that it was too much to take in. Theories of biological and cultural evolution had to be assimilated into a background of thought that included beliefs in divine creation and in the existence of an "antediluvian man." To complicate this process, scholars were confronted with the existence first of highly sophisticated Paleolithic objects found in France, and then of the masterpieces in the cave of Altamira. The revolution in thinking about Paleolithic people that assimilating these discoveries would require was understandably difficult for scholars who still believed that the rudimentary development of prehistoric people would not allow for refined artistic expression. This is not surprising, given the rather low esteem in which the art of non-Western peoples -- American Indians, Africans, and Oceanians -- was held at that time.     The situation began to change in 1895, with the discovery in France of other caves decorated with paintings and engravings, whose Paleolithic dating was indisputable. The caves at Les Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume, both explored in that year, were of the Paleolithic period beyond any reasonable doubt. In 1902, Émile Cartailhac felt obliged to publish, with all humility, an article bearing the title "Caves Decorated with Drawings, the Grotto of Altamira (Spain). Mea culpa of a skeptic." In this article he admitted having participated in "an error, committed for twenty years, an injustice that must be acknowledged and made reparation for publicly.... For my part I must bow to reality, and render justice to M. de Sautuola."     The year that he published his article, Cartailhac visited the cave at Altamira for the first time, and introduced himself to María, who as a child had been the first to see the polychrome figures. Sadly, her father, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, had died in 1888. Also in 1902, Hermilio Alcalde del Río completed his excavations in the cave, the first excavation of a Paleolithic site conducted in a truly methodical manner. He incorporated his observations into his major 1906 publication of the cave at Altamira, in which he coined for its magnificent painted vault the name "the Sistine Ceiling of Quarternary art."     Since that time Altamira has enjoyed its deserved place in the history of art. The same, however, cannot be said of its discoverer, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. Many early publications of Paleolithic paintings underrated his pioneering achievement -- which was to scientifically deduce that the paintings of Altamira were indeed Paleolithic and to publish them as such for the first time, before the existence of other painted and engraved caves in France was known. Indeed, not until fifteen years later was Altamira understood or published as Paleolithic elsewhere. The unjust, and above all incorrect, valuation of Sautuola's achievement still incomprehensibly endures, even in recent publications, which refuse to credit Sautuola with his important discovery.     Altamira changed our vision of prehistoric people profoundly. The recognition of the greatness of its art -- of Paleolithic art -- helped elevate the science of archaeology from a study of the objects themselves to that of the cultures of the peoples who made them. Copyright © 1999 Harry N. Abrams, Inc. All rights reserved.