The Cave of Altamira is one of the oldest art galleries in the world with its earliest paintings believed to date back to the Upper Paleolithic. The cave is renowned for its prehistoric parietal cave art of charcoal drawings and colored paintings of fauna and human hands.

Today it is one of the best places in the world to go back in time and see what life was once like through the cave paintings. While these cave paintings are old, they are not the oldest in the world. Some cave paintings in Indonesia are believed to be about around 40,000 years old.

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The Cave Of Altamira

The Cave of Altamira was discovered in 1868 by Modesto Cubillas and is today a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site. Its name in Spanish is "Cueva de Altamira" and the oldest paintings are believed to date back around 36,000 years ago - much older than confirmed datings for humans in the Americas.

  • Discovered: 1868
  • Age: Up to 36,000 Years Ago (Most Are From Around 14,000 Years Ago)

The fame of Altamira also stems from the that these are the first European cave paintings with an accepted prehistoric origin.

The people who lived in the cave only lived at the mouth of the cave. But the artwork, the paintings, the drawings, and the engravings are throughout the cave. The art includes aspects of symbolism, abstractions, and naturalism.

  • Listed: World Heritage Site In 1985
  • Sealed: Sealed 13,000 Years Ago By A Rockfall

In its history, the cave was inhabited by different groups of people. This came to an end around 13,000 years ago when a rockfall sealed the cave's entrance and was cut off from the outside world until its discovery in 1868.

The cave of Altamira is around 270 meters (or 1,000 meters depending on the source) long and is filled with twisting passages and chambers. Archaeological excavations have revealed Palaeolithic artifacts from the Gravvettian (roughly 22.000 years ago) to the Middle Magdalenian (between roughly 16,500 and 13,000 years ago.

  • Age: Ongoing Debate, But Oldest Work Could Be 36,000 Years Old

It should be noted that there is no scientific agreement on dating the artifacts, drawings, or paintings in the cave, and ascertaining the age of the cave art is ongoing. In 2008 researchers found that the paintings were completed over a very long period of up to 20,000. The work that is thought to be 36,000 years old is the "large red claviform-like symbol of Techo de los Polícromos"

The most impressive work of art is that of a herd of now-extinct steppe bison in two different poses. There are also two horses, a large doe, and maybe a wilder boar.

There are other images of horses and goats as well as handprints.

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The Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain

The Cave of Altamira is part of a larger grouping of caves in the region of 18 caves in northern Spain. Altogether they represent art from Upper Paleolithic cave art in Europe from between 35,000 and 11,000 years ago. They are collectively designated a World Heritage Site - at first, the heritage listing was only for Altamira but it was expanded in 2008 to include the other 17 caves.

  • Number Of Caves: 18 Paleolithic Caves In The Group

The region was occupied by Upper Paleolithic groups for thousands of years and the inhabitants made good use of the caves in the area.

While there are many other caves in northern Spain home to Paleolithic art, none can compare to Altamira. Altamira is much more complex and well-populated than all the other known caves in the area.

Visiting And The National Museum and Research Center of Altamira

When the cave was open to the public between the 1970s and 2000s, the paintings were being damaged by the breath of the large numbers of visitors to the cave. They were closed in 1977 and only opened with limited access in 1982 which resulted in a three-year waiting list. But there they were closed again in 2002.

Today visitors are no longer permitted to visit the cave in order to preserve the cave. There are however replicas of a section of the cave at the site.

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As the cave was closed to the public, The National Museum and Research Center of Altamira was built nearby. This center is dedicated to the conservation and research of the caves as well of course as sharing information about them.

The museum offers prehistoric technology workshops for visitors, it exhibits objects from Altamira and the other caves of the region. One of the main attractions is the replica of the original caves so that visitors do not need to visit the real caves. It also has some sculptures of human faces that are not visitable in the cave.

  • May to October: Tuesday - Saturday 9:30 am - 8.00 pm. Sundays and Holidays 9:30 am - 3.00 pm
  • November to April: Tuesday - Saturday 9:30 am - 6:00 pm. Sundays and Holidays 9:30 am - 3.00 pm
  • Admission: 3 Euros ($3.50)

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