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date: 14 October 2019


  • Paul G. Bahn


Cave site near the coast of northern Spain, 2 km south of Santillana del Mar, Santander. It is important for its cave art of the Late Upper Palaeolithic period (c. 20,000–c. 10,000 bp; see also Prehistoric Europe, §II, 1). The cave of Altamira, nicknamed the ‘Sistine Chapel of Rock Art’, was decorated at various times c. 16,000–14,000 bp (see fig.). Material from excavations in the cave, including the engraved shoulder-blades of deer, is housed in the Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid, and in the Museo de las Cuevas de Altamira at the site.

First discovered by a hunter in 1868, the cave was visited in 1876 by a local landowner, Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who noticed some black painted signs on a wall. He returned to excavate in 1879, and it was on this occasion that his daughter spotted a cluster of polychrome paintings of bison on the ceiling. The figures seemed to have been executed with a fatty paste, and de Sautuola noticed a close similarity in style between these huge figures and the small examples of portable prehistoric art that he had seen at an exhibition in Paris. He therefore deduced that the cave art was of a similar age, but his attempts to present this discovery to the academic establishment met with widespread rejection. The validity of de Sautuola’s claim was not established until the early 20th century, years after his premature death in ...

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