European cave art: Altamira Cave, Spain


Altamira Cave.

Parietal cave art has been the subject of wonder, fascination, and speculation ever since the first discoveries were made in Western Europe in the late 19th century. It has long been a phenomenon exclusively associated with Western European hunter-gatherer groups living from the Aurignacian period until the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. However, some recent finds in Africa, India, Australia and the Ural Mountains have shown that this type of artistic expression was by no means unique to European groups. Regardless of location, however, almost all of these sites link the spread of artistic creation with the presence of modern humans. One contentious exception is the Spanish site of El Castillo, explored in another post.

(More after the jump…)

The greatest concentration of places with Palaeolithic cave art is in Western Europe. They are distributed in the following countries:

Spain: 145 sites, three of them in the open-air (112 caves in Northern Spain)
France: 160 sites, including several rock-shelters and one open-air site.
Italy: 6 caves.
Portugal: 1 cave and 2 open-air sties.
Russia: 3 caves.
Single sites in Yugoslavia, Romania and Germany can be added to this list.


The unequal distribution of sites is can be linked to several causes:

1) The historical contingency of archaeology in Europe and the larger modern population density in Western Europe by nature affects the rate of discovery of rock art sites.  in eastern regions (like Siberia) there is less research and no known art.

2)Limestone areas (where caves are formed) are distributed unequally across the continent. Palaeolithic art is mainly found in caves, where it can be preserved.

These circumstances might explain the scarcity of art in vast unpopulated regions of Russia and in central and Eastern Europe, or the unequal distribution within the Iberian Peninsula and France. Whatever the reasons, cave art appears overwhelmingly in Western Europe, in contrast with the wider spread of portable art (small sculptures in bone, antler, ivory and clay, and engravings on bones and stones), which is found across large areas of Central Europe.

Similarly, until a few years ago it was believed that this art was restricted to the realm of caves and rock-shelters, but the discovery of large open-air sites in Europe, four of them with hundreds of engravings, has challenged this.

At a regional level, Palaeolithic art seems to be concentrated in certain river valleys: the Vézère, Lot, Ariège and Ardeche in France; the River Coa in Portugal; and in the small valleys in Northern Spain. Sites outside these valleys, which today seem to be in isolation or dispersed across large areas of land, are found in Andalusia (14 sites), the northern Meseta and Levant (all in Spain), and in Sicily and southern Italy.[1]


Map of Spain denoting the locations of several important archaeological sites, including Altamira.

Europe’s first cave art discovery was made in 1879 by amateur archaeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola at Altamira Cave, located near the town of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Spain. Archaeologists later excavated a floor rich in deposits of artifacts from the Upper Solutrean (c. 18,500 years ago) and Lower Magdalenean (between c. 16,500 and 14,000 years ago).[2]

Paintings are found throughout the 300 meter cave and were produced using charcoal, ochre and hematite. Artists used techniques such as chiaroscuro, shading, and sophisticated blending of pigments to produce both stylized and relatively realistic imagery. Artists purposefully used the natural shape of the walls to exaggerate chosen aspects of the paintings are produce three dimensional effects.[1]


Replica of the ceiling of the Altamira Cave.

The Polychrome Ceiling is the one of the most famous features of the cave, depicting a herd of extinct bison (Bison priscus) in various positions. Also pictured are horses, deer, and wild boar.


Taxonomy of drawings found in Altamira Cave.


Hall of the Bulls.



The famous “Bison of Altamira,” now a Spanish touristic emblem.

Archaeologists first working in the cave dated the images to the Paleolithic period. However, the authenticity of this art was doubted for decades until other cave art sites in Europe were discovered. Critics contended that the art was too complex and beautifully rendered to be the work of “brutish” Paleolithic peoples.













2. Cave



One thought on “European cave art: Altamira Cave, Spain

  1. Pingback: Our artistic relatives: Did Neanderthals have the cognitive capacity to produce parietal art? The case of El Castillo Cave… | Emergence of Cognitive Personhood in the Paleolithic

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