Located in Santillana del mar, Cantabria, lies this archaeological site. It is a cave that was inhabited for 22,000 years, from 35,600 years ago until approximately 13,000 years ago (when the access to the cave collapsed.) Today it is part of the National Museum and Research Center of the Altamira Caves, which serves as its home, protector and visitor manager due to its antiquity and historical importance. Be patient, a little later we will tell you well what this management is about. We want you to be able to visit it understanding every detail, but first we are going to tell you the magnificent story of the discovery of “Altamira Caves“.
Who discovered the Altamira Caves?
In 1868, Modesto Cubillas, a local hunter, practiced his favorite sport in the company of his dog. Everything went on normally until his faithful friend was trapped between some rocks trying to catch his prey. It was then that he urged among the rocks to free him and found the entrance to the cave. He decided to warn Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, a neighbor with prehistoric studies.
Marcelino began his visits to the cave in 1875. He didn’t do it before because these lands are full of chemical weathering of rocks and he thought it would be a simple thing. But he didn’t realize the real importance of the discovery until 1879, when he decided to take his daughter to what was then only a simple cave. While Marcelino was doing his research and excavation work, she went deep into the cave, where it is necessary to use artificial light in order to see. Then, she could see buffaloes inscribed in the vault and warned her father.
His father, who at first thought that it was simply scratches on the walls due to antiquity, had to think about it and investigate a lot. In the end, he came to the conclusion that they were cave paintings from the Palaeolithic period and decided to give the warning in 1880.
It was precisely the time it took them to make this site known that raised doubts. But it was a small thing if we consider that what really disturbed the historians was another fact. Until that moment, there were no known samples of art from this period of history. (We located the cave between the Solutrense – 180,000 B.P. – and Lower Magdalenian – 16,500 to 14,000 B.P.). Then, three sites were discovered in France that changed the conception of history as it was known until now: La Mouthe, Combarelles and Font de Gaume.
These, which date from the same time, gave credit to what happened in Cantabria and especially to the good faith of the discoverer. It was suspected that he was the one who painted those figures during the years in which he dedicated himself to digging alone. This process of recognition also included the discovery of furniture art similar to others inside the cave. Finally, Altamira Caves was assimilated for further study as an archaeological site, particularly the largest prehistoric site known at that time. In 1985 it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The cave itself is rather small. It is 270 meters long in a linear structure. That is to say, it consists of a gallery from which small ramifications are opened and which culminates in a narrow gallery.
The polychrome room that houses the bison as the protagonist was made of stone and coal or other minerals as a pigment. It is mixed with water or animal fat. We know that it was mostly painted by hand and that they also used other somewhat newer and special techniques to produce effects such as blowing paint into the cavities inside the bones. This room we are talking about is the gallery that is farthest from the entrance and therefore from the sunlight.
You may wonder how they painted there without access to light, since without moving too far from the subject matter and materials we were talking about you will have the answer: with a marrow lamp (fat from animal bones). From this we can see that most of the time they spent in the room that is located at the entrance because of the ease of light entering. There they did their daily life like eating or working on their handicrafts. We also know that they were hunter-gatherers, maybe that’s why they built branched out rooms from the main gallery: to store food.
The paintings themselves vary from realistic representations to abstract and non-figurative drawings. There are polychrome (variety of color), engravings, black, red and ochre paintings of animals.
How to visit it
The truth is that the original cave is not open to the public to be visited freely, it was decided so for its preservation. What is normally visited is a replica called “Neocueva” which is also in the Museum of Altamira, located very close to the original. For preventive conservation it was established to make a visit of five people a week to the original cave.
The visit will last 37 minutes and you will have to wear special shoes and a hat. The stay in each area of the cave will have a defined time and it is not allowed to take pictures. To be one of these five people chosen to enter, you must participate in the draw that takes place among all those who enter before 10:30. You will be asked to fill out a form and you are all set! Finally, please note that the Museum will be closed every Monday of the year and that tickets are no longer sold 30 minutes before closing time.