Some of the oldest known rock art in the world is found in Spain, and each painting portrays a unique story from much earlier early civilizations.
The cave of Altamira is one of the oldest art galleries in the world with its first paintings which date back to the Upper Paleolithic. The cave is renowned for its prehistoric cave art consisting of charcoal drawings and colorful paintings of wildlife and human hands.
Today it is one of the best places in the world to step back in time and see what life was like through cave paintings. Although these cave paintings are ancient, they are not the oldest in the world. Some rock paintings in Indonesia are said to be around 40,000 years old.
The Altamira Cave was discovered in 1868 by Modesto Cubillas and is today a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its name in Spanish is “Cueva de Altamira” and the oldest paintings are believed to be around 36,000 years old – much older than confirmed dates for humans in the Americas.
- Discovered: 1868
- Age: Up to 36,000 years ago (most are around 14,000 years old)
The fame of Altamira also comes from the fact that it is the first European cave paintings of recognized prehistoric origin.
The people who lived in the cave only lived at the mouth of the cave. But works of art, paintings, drawings and engravings are all over the cave. The art includes aspects of symbolism, abstractions and naturalism.
- Registered: World Heritage Site in 1985
- Sealed: Sealed 13,000 years ago by a landslide
In its history, the cave has been inhabited by different groups of people. It ended around 13,000 years ago when a landslide sealed the entrance to the cave and was cut off from the outside world until its discovery in 1868.
The Altamira Cave is around 270 meters (or 1,000 meters depending on the source) long and is filled with winding passages and chambers. Archaeological excavations have revealed Paleolithic artifacts from the Gravvettian (around 22,000 years ago) to the Middle Magdalenian (between around 16,500 and 13,000 years ago).
- Age: Debate ongoing, but oldest work may be 36,000 years old
It should be noted that there is no scientific agreement on the dating of the artifacts, drawings or paintings in the cave, and that determination of the age of the rock art is ongoing. In 2008, researchers found that the paintings had been made over a very long period of time of up to 20,000. The work believed to be 36,000 years old is the “great red claviform symbol of Techo de los Policromos“
The most impressive work of art is that of a herd of now extinct steppe bison in two different poses. There are also two horses, a large doe and possibly a wild boar.
There are other images of horses and goats as well as hand prints.
Altamira cave and Paleolithic rock art in northern Spain
Altamira Cave is part of a larger group of caves in the 18 cave region of northern Spain. Together they represent the art of Upper Paleolithic rock art in Europe between 35,000 and 11,000 years ago. They are collectively designated a World Heritage Site – initially the heritage list was only for Altamira, but was extended in 2008 to include the remaining 17 caves.
- Number of caves: 18 Paleolithic Caves In The Group
The area has been occupied by Upper Paleolithic groups for thousands of years and locals have made good use of the caves in the area.
While there are many other caves in northern Spain housing Paleolithic art, none can compare to Altamira. Altamira is much more complex and well populated than any of the other known caves in the region.
Visit And The National Museum and Research Center of Altamira
When the cave was opened to the public between the 1970s and 2000s, the paintings were damaged by the blast of the cave’s many visitors. They were closed in 1977 and only opened with limited access in 1982, resulting in a three-year waiting list. But there they were closed again in 2002.
Today, visitors are no longer allowed to visit the cave in order to preserve the cave. There are, however, replicas of a section of the cave at the site.
As the cave is closed to the public, the National Museum and Research Center of Altamira was built nearby. This center is dedicated to the conservation and research of caves as well as to the sharing of information concerning them.
The museum offers visitors workshops of prehistoric technology, it exhibits objects from Altamira and other caves in the region. One of the main attractions is the replica of the original caves so that visitors do not need to visit the real caves. It also has some sculptures of human faces that cannot be visited in the cave.
- May to October: Tuesday to Saturday 9:30 am to 8 pm. Sundays and holidays from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
- november to april: Tuesday to Saturday 9:30 am to 6:00 pm. Sundays and holidays from 9:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
- Admission: 3 euros ($ 3.50)
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