Located near the town of Santillana del Mar, just 45 minutes from Santander Airport, Altamira Cave is one of the most famous attractions of the region.
|The setting: The rolling hills of Cantabria.|
It’s not an every-day occurrence when you get to physically take a step backwards in time, and this is precisely what happens on a visit to Altamira Cave.
Altamira is a 300-metre-long cave that has become a key site for those interested in the Paleolithic period. The cave has a long history of human habitation, with the first humans living in the mouth of the cave 18,500 years ago. Years later, about 13,000 years before the present time, a rockfall hid the cave and its contents until its rediscovery.
A fallen tree disturbed the rocks at the cave’s entrance, and it was Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola who found Altamira in 1879. Or, rather, it was his eight-year-old daughter who first spotted the exact thing that makes the cave so famous.
Maria looked up towards the ceiling of the cave, and spotted a polychrome painting of a bull-like animal. Her father identified it as the long-extinct steppe bison. Exploring further, that single bison was really just one of a whole herd that was painted on the ceiling of the cave.
What followed was a lot of name-calling and name-shaming, as scientists at the time disputed the find on the grounds that ancient people were not deemed advanced enough to have created these elaborate paintings. It was only in 1902 (sadly, after de Sautuola had passed away) that Altamira was confirmed as the real deal, cementing its importance in the world of archaeology.
|A tribute to de Sautuola and his daughter, Maria.|
Naturally, numerous people wanted to see the cave – and did just that. By the 60s, the cave paintings were becoming increasingly vulnerable due to the high levels of carbon dioxide exhaled by the many visitors. It was decided that a replica cave, or the Neocave, would be built nearby, and, even now, access to the original cave is severely restricted.
With this in mind, I was a little bit concerned about our visit. Would it feel less authentic, as we weren’t seeing the real cave and the real paintings?
Before we got to the Neocave, we were first led to the original cave, which is cordoned off. We could just spot the sealed entrance between a stand of trees. It became instantly clear why no one thought to look for a cave here for thousands of years!
|The entrance to the original cave (hint: it’s hidden between the trees to the right).|
For a site that represents something so ancient, the replica cave is housed in a rather modern and sleek building. Entry to the cave is preceded by a short video re-enacting what life may have been like for the people who once lived here. From there, it was straight into the depths of the cave.
And, honestly, my fears were unnecessary. It felt like we were in a cave, and every detail of the original cave – every curve, fissure and paint splotch – has been meticulously recreated. Rounding the corner to the cave’s iconic feature, my reaction was every bit as authentic as it would have been in the real cave.
Above us was a massive, static herd of bison. Depicted in rich tones of red and outlined in black, no one tells you just how big each bison is. The largest measures almost two metres in length.
The second unexpected fact is that many of the bison play with the physical dimensions of the cave, using the actual shapes and bumps of the ceiling to create each animal. This is incredibly advanced art, and I wanted to spend hours in there trying to take in each and every animal depicted.
It was once we were there for a while that we noticed that other animals and shapes are also present on the cave ceiling, such as a large doe, as well as pairs of human hands.
|The hands of someone who lived thousands and thousands of years ago.|
While straining my neck to keep my vision fixed upwards, I remember thinking that I was standing there looking at art created by people who lived thousands of years ago, visually capturing animals that no longer even exist – but that existed for these people.
Much too soon, it was time to leave the cave. As we were exiting, we chanced upon some other examples of art found within the cave, and these are classified as wholly mysterious, as no one can decide what they’re supposed to represent.
For anyone with an interest in archaeology, or in human history in general, I couldn’t recommend Altamira Cave enough. Or, if you ever were one of those kids that liked to dream up stories of time travel to ancient times (I definitely fall into this category), this is probably the closest you can get to living out those childhood fantasies.
You can find out more about the cave, its inhabitants and the rock art on the museum’s website.