The Discovery of Altamira Cave


"Look, Papa, oxen!" were the words exclaimed by Maria, the daughter of Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, upon entering the chamber of the cave.
Altamira Spain Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola Cave Art Paintings Archaeology
Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola
© Museo de Altamira.
Photo P. Saura
Having been sealed due to a rock fall, the cave was rediscovered in 1868 by a local hunter. Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, a local resident who was an amateur archaeologist, heard of the discovery and visited the cave in 1875. In 1879 he began exploring the cave in earnest, having become inspired by a recent visit to the 1878 Universal Exhibition in Paris where he had seen exhibits from the Stone Age.
The timing here was important - the study of prehistory as a science was in its infancy, and many of the ideas based on the scientific evidence were considered controversial by a society entrenched in rigid religious beliefs. To push the creation of art further and further back in time was meeting fierce scepticism on two fronts.
Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, however, felt certain that the paintings were from the Palaeolithic. In 1880 he published 'Breves apuntes sobre algunos objetos prehistóricos de la provincia de Santander' - 'Brief notes about a few prehistoric finds in Santander Province'.
Breves apuntes sobre algunos objetos prehistóricos de la provincia de Santander Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola Altamira
Breves apuntes sobre algunos objetos prehistóricos de la provincia de Santander
© Museo de Altamira
Heated debates ensued, not just among leading members of the church but also among prominent archaeologists and prehistorians. Indeed, the paintings in the cave were considered to be modern forgeries. Whilst the concept of 'the caveman' had become accepted, that same 'caveman' was certainly not sophisticated enough to produce works of art of this calibre. The fact that the art may have been created by women as well as men had not even been entertained.
Public humiliation for Sautuola followed. It was not until 1902, when several other findings of prehistoric paintings had served to render the hypothesis of the extreme antiquity of the Altamira paintings less shocking (and forgery less likely), that the scientific society retracted the opposition to Sautuola's suggestion. That year, the leading French archaeologist Emile Cartailhac, who had been one of the leading critics, emphatically admitted his mistake in the famous article, 'Mea culpa d'un sceptique', published in the journal L'Anthropologie.
Breves apuntes sobre algunos objetos prehistóricos de la provincia de Santander Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola Altamira
Breves apuntes sobre algunos objetos prehistóricos de la provincia de Santander
© Museo de Altamira
Objects SautuolaCave  Altamira Spain Archaeology
Tragically, this vindication was too late for Sautuola, who had died 14 years earlier. It was only then that his proposal was considered pivotal. The cave of Altamira was the first place in the world where the existence of rock art from the Upper Palaeolithic age was identified.
Its uniqueness and quality, the stunning conservation, and the freshness of its pigments meant its acceptance would be delayed by a quarter of a century. At the time, it was a scientific anomaly, a discovery that constituted a giant leap and not an incremental step, and the phenomenon was difficult to understand for the society of the nineteenth century, gripped by extremely rigid propositions.
(left) Objects found by Sautuola in the cave of Altamira
© Museo de Altamira. Photo P. Saura
The Cave of Altamira
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