Situated 30 km (19 miles) west of the port city of Santander, the capital city of the Cantabria region in Spain and famous for its magnificent prehistoric paintings and engravings, the Altamira Cave was discovered in 1868 by a local hunter, Modesto Cubillas. He reported about it to Marcelino Sanz de Sautola, a nobleman in the region, who visited the spot only in 1875 and returned again to excavate the floor only in 1879.
However, he excavated only at the entrance of the cave to unearth objects made of flint, animal bones and horns, as well as fauna and shells. On one of his subsequent visits, he was accompanied by his eight-year-old daughter Maria, who suddenly noticed the painting of a bison on the ceiling of a chamber of the cave and alarmed her father about it. Convinced of the antiquity of the paintings and the objects unearthed, Sautuola noted the descriptions of his finds and published his report in 1880, which led to a public controversy among experts, some of whom rejected the prehistoric origin of the paintings and dismissed them as modern forgeries. The controversy continued until 1902, when similar other prehistoric paintings were also discovered in the region and were accepted as genuine, inclusive of those reported by Sautuola.
The Altamira Cave is around 3300 feet (1000 m) long and consists of a series of twisting passages and chambers, among which the main passage varies from 6.56 feet (2 m) to 19.68 feet (6 m) in height. It is maintained by the scholars that the paintings in the caves represent two main cultures, the Solutrean, prevalent about 21,000 to 17,000 years ago, and the Magdalenian, which is around 11,000 to 17,000 years old.
These populations, symbolising the apex of culture during the Upper Paleolithic Period and were known for their toolmaking and artistry, are responsible for the majority of the paintings at Altamira. The site was well-positioned for the human occupants to take advantage of the rich wildlife that grazed in the valleys of the surrounding mountains as well as the marine life available in nearby coastal areas. However, while both periods belong to the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age, the cave was evidently inhabited only by wild animals in the two millennia between these two occupations.
The lateral chamber of the cave, measuring approximately 60 by 30 feet (18 by 9 m), contains most of the paintings and the roof of the chamber is also covered with paintings and engravings. However, as the height of the vault varies from 3.8 to 8.7, it is evident that most of the time, the artists had to work there above their heads in a crouching position, without seeing the whole ceiling at a glance. The paintings and engravings are often placed in combination, even the bison figures that dominate were first engraved and then painted.
All those images were executed in a vivid bichrome of red and black, along with a touch of violet tones in some. Apart from the bison, the other featured animals include horses and an 8.2 feet (2.5 m) long doe, the biggest figure on the ceiling, as well as other creatures rendered in a simpler style. Other numerous engravings in the chamber include positive and negative images of human hands, eight anthropomorphic figures that are humanlike in their visual appearance and a series of dots, mostly drawn by using charcoal.
It is believed that the paintings and engravings on the cave walls were made by the people who inhabited the cave during different periods. The drawing technique adopted by those ancient artists was engraving the wall of the cave with a flint object and then drawing a black line using charcoal. After the completion of the drawing, the figure was coloured red or yellow. While the details like hair were made with a charcoal pencil, eyes or horns were engraved and bumps and cracks on the roof were purposely used to give volume to the animals. The narrow gallery also contains a special set of masks, representing animal faces like deer and bison.
During the 20th century, walls and paths were built inside the cave for the benefit of hundreds of thousands of visitors, but the process of construction, as well as the human presence, adversely affected the invaluable paintings. In a desperate attempt to preserve the invaluable treasure trove, it was therefore decided to close the cave to the public. In 1985, Altamira was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.