The Discovery of Altamira Cave

THE DISCOVERY

 
 
"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
Bradshaw Foundation
 
Like us on Facebook & Follow us on Twitter to receive news & updates:
Support our work & become a
Friend of the Foundation
Bradshaw Foundation Twitter @BrashawFND
Homepage About the Foundation Contact Us Facebook News Articles Twitter List of Research Papers Professor Stephen Oppenheimer Travel Index About the Expeditions Forthcoming Expeditions Bespoke Expeditions Enquire Practical Information History of Exploration Welcome to the iShop Film Downloads DVD's Sculpture Prints Clothing Messenger Bag eBooks INORA Downloads About iLecture Films Shipping & Handling iLectures In Conversation Video Stories Travel Films Read the reviews Privacy Policy Bradshaw Foundation Facebook Friends of the Foundation Archive Index World's Oldest Rock Art Africa Documentary Films South Africa RARI Giraffe Carvings Niger Namibia Western Central Africa Africa Paintings Gallery Tanzania The Tuareg People Tuareg Salt Caravans Gilf Kebir Birnin Kudu Rock Art Center Archive Index San Rock Art Paintings San Bushman San Rock Art Film Origins Centre Johannesburg Archive Index Arizona Baja California Baja California Film Coso Range Talking Stone Film Nevada Oregon Territory Moab, Utah Clovis First Australia Archive Index Introduction Bradshaw Paintings Kimberley Region The Unambal Hugh Brown Leif Thiele Gallery Dan Clark Grahame Walsh Bradshaws / Gwion Gwion Archive Index Introduction Origins of the British Avebury Stonehenge Sounds of Stonehenge The British Museum British Isles Megaliths Gower Peninsula Rock Art Mendip Hills Prehistory Northumberland Rock Art Red Lady of Paviland Stone Age Mammoth Abattoir Archive Index Introduction Peterborough Petroglyphs Western Canadian Rock Art Writing-On-Stone Wuikinuxv Territory Dinosaur Provincial Park Archive Index Huashan Rock Art Yinchuan Museum Rock Art Festival Field Trip Gallery Itinerant Creeds Inner Mongolia & Ningxia Vanishing Civilization Life in Rock Art (PDF) Tibet Tibet Photographs Dazu Rock Carvings Tiger Motif Archive Index Chauvet Cave Lascaux Cave Niaux Cave Cosquer Cave Rouffignac Cave Portable Art Defining Rock Art Tuc d'Audoubert Bison Dr. Jean Clottes Index UNESCO World Heritage Introduction Cave Paintings Gallery Visiting the Chauvet Cave Return to Chauvet Cave Investigating the Cave Venus & Sorcerer Werner Herzog Film Chauvet Publications India Archive Index Rock Art Central India Pachmarhi Hills India Rock Art Gallery Preservation & Education Dr. V. S. Wakankar Articles on India Rock Art Contemporary Art Middle East Archive Index Middle East Inroduction Rock Art of Iran Rock Art of Saudi Arabia United Arab Emirates Rock Art Ancient Geometry Middle East Colonisation Scandinavian Rock Art Archive Scandinavian Introduction Alta Rock Art Norway Rock Art in Finland Tanum Rock Art Sweden Thor Heyerdahl Archive Index Introduction America's Oldest Art? Pedra Furada Bolivian Rock Art Campeche Island - Brazil Checta Petroglyphs - Peru Cueva de las Manos Santa Catarina Island - Brazil Rock Art in Britain Campeche Rock Art Petroglyphs El Salvador - Corinto Cave Hand Rock Art Paintings Tibetan Rock Art United Arab Emirates Uzbekistan Yinchuan Rock Art Museum Introduction Ice Age Art Gallery Claire Artemyz Jill Cook Interview Cycladic Introduction Cycladic Gallery Introduction Geometric Signs Chart Research Methodology Geometric Signs in France Sign Types/Countries/Regions Bibliography Ancient Symbols in Rock Art Newsletter Archive Download Issues Introduction Genetic Map Professor Stephen Oppenheimer Further Reading Origins of the British BBC Documentary Origins Index Origins Overview 13 Big Questions Stanley Ambrose Homo Floresiensis Herto Skulls Homo Dmanisi Liujiang Skull Introduction Sentinels in Stone Easter Island Rock Art Birdman Cult / Motif Sea & Marine Creatures Design & Motifs Dr Georgia Lee Easter Island Map Contemporary Art Glossary Conclusion Thor Heyerdahl Introduction When & Who Built It? How Was It Built? The Area Sounds of Stonehenge Meaning of a Pyramid Pyramid Studies Pyramid Superstructure Pyramid Substructure Pyramid Preparations Pyramid Building Saqqara Nabil Swelim Temples of Malta and Gozo Research in the Caucasus The Keselo Foundation Homo Dmanisi Ancient Toolmakers Index Introduction Descent into the Cave The Decorated Caves Shamanistic Experience Spring Initiation Rites Summary Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4 Professor John P. Miller Motif: Eternal Index Banksy Han Meilin Bruce Radke Christian Tuki Gordon Ellis-Brown Site Map Search the Website Glossary of Terms & Definition Podcast on iTunes Other Websites Contact the Foundation