The caves, culture and cuisine of Altamira
“Look, Daddy – oxen,” 9-year-old Maria cried out, pointing to the roof of the cave.
Her father, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, looked up. It was 1879 and he was making his second visit to the Cave of Altamira on the northern coast of Spain when he suddenly realized that these weren’t domestic oxen. They were prehistoric bison.
Sautuola had visited the cave in 1875 and had seen the paintings. He hadn’t until now, however, realized their age. Convinced of the importance of his find, he would endure withering criticism for the rest of his life while defending his belief that these were prehistoric paintings by people who had lived in the area some 15,000 years earlier. Not until after Sautuola’s death would leading scientists such as French professor Emile Cartailhac change their minds and agree that Sautuola had made an enormously important discovery.
The Cave of Altamira
My wife and I first visited the Cave of Altamira in 1966 and were horrified at its lack of protection. Yes, the signs banned smoking and the use of camera flash units, but once inside the cave many of the visitors lit their cigarettes and began popping their flashes. The guides were indifferent to the rules.
Since then, visits to the original cave have been severely restricted. Until recently they were limited to 20 people per day, and there was a four-year waiting period. Now I’m told that it’s impossible for anyone to visit unless as part of a scientific delegation.
However, the Spanish government has recently finished construction of an excellent replica and a superb museum. Thousands of visitors now have a chance to see what life was like 15,000 years ago without destroying the original paintings in the process.
The red and black figures of the animals – bison, deer, horses, bulls – look very similar, thus raising several questions. Was there one painter or several? How did they make paints that would endure for thousands of years? How did they learn to paint?
These figures do not appear to be the work of someone painting for the first time. Many of the paintings were cleverly executed on bulges in the rock, giving them a three-dimensional look. Was there a training or apprenticeship program? Did the painter or painters have special status within the community? How did they paint the ceilings so deep in this cave? Was an assistant holding a torch? If so, why aren’t there more smoke marks on the ceilings?
There are other caves in this area also worth exploring. In 1903, Hermilio Alcalde del Rio, an explorer and scientific pioneer, found four caves at nearby Puente Viesgo. Two of them are now open for visits: the Cueva de Las Monedas and the more interesting Cueva de el Castillo. Although the paintings aren’t nearly as sophisticated as those in Altamira, scientists estimate that these caves were inhabited over a longer period of time. Could Altamira have been a gathering point for these small cave-dwelling tribes? Could the cave painter at Altamira been the lead painter or mentor and the others his students?
The lion man of Hohlestein-Staedel in Germany was painted some 34,000 years ago and is thought to be man’s first work of art. Recently more paintings – perhaps as old as the lion man – have been discovered in a cave at Chauvet in southeastern France. And the cave near Ronda in southern Spain – La Pileta – has paintings perhaps 25,000 years old but they aren’t as well-done as those at Altamira.
In short, the paintings at Altamira are among man’s very first works of art.
A regional tour
The Cave of Altamira and its museum are just two kilometers from the medieval town of Santillana del Mar with its numerous ancestral homes of early nobility. Although this is one of the most beautiful villages in Spain, local residents have been known to call it the “town of the three lies.” First, it is not holy (santi); second, its terrain is not flat (llana); and third, it is actually not on the sea (del mar) but about three kilometers away.
The village celebrates numerous festivals. During our Saturday visit, the cobblestone streets were full of dancers, jugglers, acrobats and musicians, and vendors selling local crafts and foods. A battered-looking Robin Hood offered bows and Davy Crockett-like hats. A German from Alicante, Spain, was baking huge loaves of delicious smelling bread in a medieval oven. On Sunday, a local dance group wearing traditional costumes performed for a wedding in the church courtyard.
As evidenced by the local Museum of Torture, life in medieval times was not all merriment, dancing and festivals. Outside the museum stands a shiny metal, life-size statue of a bull with an opening in its side. During the Spanish Inquisition, heretics were put inside, the bottom was filled with water and the opening bolted shut. Then a fire was set under the bull and the poor heretics were boiled to death. Their screams and the steam coming out the bull’s nostrils made it appear as if the bull were alive.
The cave dwellers had a life expectancy of less than 30 years. Given the brutality of the Inquisition, lives couldn’t have lasted much longer during medieval days, even in this green and relatively wealthy area of Spain.
About five miles from Altamira is the tiny fishing village of Comillas, which has an extraordinary looking building called El Capricho. It was built for local royalty between 1883 and 1885 by the famous Barcelona architect Antonio Gaudi. It is well worth a visit both to see the exterior and to enjoy its superb restaurant. Instead of ordering main courses for lunch, we shared three starters. First, a plate of thinly sliced “jamon iberico,” delicious acorn-fed ham from Extremadura. Then a salad of avocado and shrimp. Finally another salad of shell fish. For dessert, we chose “canutillos de castana,” little biscuits filled with a creamy nut sauce, plus caramel ice cream.
For Americans traveling to Bilbao to see the new Guggenheim Museum, this would be a perfect day-trip – drive west to Altamira, see the cave, make a quick tour of Santillana, then have lunch at El Capricho.
Morgan Smith is a former Aspenite and part-time Barcelona resident. He can he reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Max Weintraub has been senior curator at the Aspen Art Museum since January 2019.