All About History

CAVE OF ALTAMIRA

“LOOK, PAPA, OXEN!”

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Spain, c.36,000 years old

Altamira is a cave complex located near the town of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria in Spain. The amateur archeologi­st Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who owned the land where the Altamira cave sits, started exploring the caves in 1875, but it was not until four years later when his daughter said “Look, Papa, oxen!” that he noticed the depictions of bison on the ceiling. With the support of professor Juan de Vilanova y

Piera, Sautuola published his research, although other experts challenged his findings. From 1902, after Sautuola’s death, when more prehistori­c paintings had been discovered in the Franco-cantabaria­n region the evidence of his findings could no longer be denied. It was only possible for Sautoula’s daughter to see paintings because a rockfall sealed the entrance of the cave around 13,000 years ago and successful­ly preserved the inside until its eventual discovery, which was possible after a tree fell and moved the rocks. The cave is 270 metres long with twisting chambers and passages. The drawings of flora and fauna are deeply colourful, showing deer, boars, horses and bison, made with ochre and charcoal. The cave’s biggest show-stopper is the 25 large polychrome figures which depict bison, a hind and two horses. The bison and horses are between 125 and 170cm in length, whereas the hind is two metres. The bison is said to have inspired profoundly the style of Pablo Picasso’s bulls many centuries later. Today, these remain some of the best preserved cave paintings in the world with their vivid colours.

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