Skip to content
Home » Altamira Cave, the Sistine Chapel of rock art

Altamira Cave, the Sistine Chapel of rock art

Cave paintings are one of the first known forms of human artistic expression. These are designs made on rocks or on the wall of a cave that represent animals, people, or symbols from prehistoric times.

A team of Australian archaeologists discovered the oldest known animal cave painting in the Leang Tedongnge Cave in Indonesia. This is an image of a wild boar and two hands drawn about 45,000 years ago. There are paintings with older non-figurative symbols. For example in Spain paintings were found about 64,000 years old, before the arrival of modern humans in Europe. It is believed that they were made by Neanderthals.

The meaning of these designs for the first humans is not known for sure, but it is believed that they had a magical-religious character that favoured hunting since most of them represent hunting scenes. However, the significant difference between the date of some paintings and others makes it impossible to generalize the meaning it may have had for different generations of people.

The most important and ancient examples of rock art in Europe are collected in Spain and France. The best known and world famous are the Lascaux Cave in France and the Altamira Cave in Spain. However, it should be noted that samples of rock art have been found scattered on all continents (except Antarctica). In this article, we will tell you all the details of the Altamira cave, known as the Sistine Chapel of rock art.

Leang Tedongnge Cave
Leang Tedongnge cave painting - Photo by Basran Burhan (CC License) -

Altamira Cave


Altamira Cave was discovered near the town of Santillana del Mar (Spain) by a hunter named Modesto Cubillas in 1868. He discovered, when he went in search of his dog after chasing prey. He did not pay much attention to it as the discovery of caves. in the area was normal and he simply told about the cave to the neighbour of the area, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. Marcelino did not go to explore it until a few years later.

On Sanz de Sautuola’s first visit to Altamira, he did not notice the jewel hidden in the cave. On a second visit accompanied by his 8-year-old daughter, it was the girl who first caught a glimpse of the paintings on the ceiling of the cave. She ran to tell her father, who was impressed with what he saw.

Altamira Cave painting
Photo by Altamira Museum and D. Rodriguez (CC License)
Paintings in the interior

Studies have shown that the paintings found in Altamira were made between 30,000 BC. and 15,000 BC. The cave was inhabited at least occasionally for 22,000 years until 13,000 BC. There was a detachment at the entrance that made access easy and facilitated the preservation of the paintings.

The interior of the cave consists of many rooms. The most important is known as the “Gran Sala” (Great Room). It is formed by a large ceiling filled with multicoloured paintings that have earned it the nickname of the Sistine Chapel of the Quaternary Art. In prehistoric times, they would receive some natural light but not enough to design, so it is believed that all designs were made with artificial light from a fire.

Altamira Cave painting

The most represented animal in the Great Room is the bison. The bison is represented with 16 colourful specimens and one in black, drawn in different positions and measuring between 1.40 and 1.80 meters. In addition to the bison, there are also various specimens of horses, deer, or wild boars. The cave artists used the shapes of the rocks to give volume and realism to their designs.

It was the first time such a huge set of prehistoric paintings was found. This caused certain skepticism among the scholars of the time. They believed that they were drawn by Sanz de Sautuola himself because until then they believed that art came from evolution and that it was impossible for the Stone Age savages to do such paintings.

However, the subsequent discoveries of similar cave paintings in France and advances in scientific techniques have confirmed the authenticity of the paintings and the great importance of their discovery.

Access to the cave

The cave was opened to the public in 1917. The interest in visiting it increased until the 1970s. At that time it reached annual figures of over 170,000 visits per year. This jeopardized the preservation of the paintings due to the deterioration of the indoor microclimate and in 1977 closed to the public. In 1982 it reopened allowing limited daily access to visitors so that only 8,500 visitors are reached annually.

The system to visit was to subscribe to an endless waiting list, with waits of up to a year to make the visit. This led to the creation of a replica of the cave that would facilitate the interest in accessing the original cave. In this way, the Altamira National Museum and Research Center was built in 2001, next to the original cave. Inside this museum stands out the “Neocueva”, the most faithful reproduction that exists from the original cave. In it, you can see the paintings of the Great Room. It has been designed following the same techniques used by the original Paleolithic painters.

Photo by Alonso de Mendoza (CC License)

Once the museum was completed, the original cave was closed to the public again in 2002 due to pending studies to assess the impact of the visits. Although studies recommended not to open the cave to the public, in 2014 it reopened. The reopening was with a very strict regime of visits. From there, only 5 visitors per week are allowed for thirty seven minutes. They must have access in special costumes to limit the damage caused to the cave. The lucky ones are selected by drawing lots among the museum visitors on Fridays between 9:30 and 10:30.

Currently, due to the limitations of COVID-19, the draw was canceled and the people who were saved in the old waiting list are called back, without the possibility of registering new people to avoid the crowds that happened on Friday. This situation will last until the end of the pandemic when the system of visits will be reviewed. 

In conclusion, if you want to know more about spanish art and culture, you can look at Trípode de Viaje.

However, if you want to know more about culture or art of other countries, loook at our Blog. 

Author: Pedro Jesús Martinez Márquez

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *