Altamira Cave Art

Chamber of the Bison, Magdalenian
Chamber of Frescoes: 34-13,000 BC

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Polychrome cave painting of a bison from the ceiling of Altamira Cave, Cantabria, Spain
One of the famous multicoloured bison paintings from the ceiling of Altamira Cave. Regarded as a highpoint of Upper Paleolithic cave art. Image courtesy of Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Why is Altamira Cave Important?

The Spanish cave of Altamira was one of the first big paleolithic caves to be excavated. It remains a major centre of Stone Age culture on the Iberian Peninsula.

Until the discovery of Lascaux in 1940, it was the most famous Stone Age cave in the world.

Its most famous parietal art is the multi-coloured cave painting on the ceiling of the Chamber of the Frescoes (Sala de los polícromos).

Although its art dates back to 34,000 BC, the importance of Altamira stems from its reputation as a unique example of Magdalenian painting during the era of Upper Paleolithic art (40,000-10,000 BC).

In 1985, Altamira was declared a UN World Heritage Site and a key location of prehistoric art of Northern Spain.

Top Three Stone Age Caves

Altamira, along with the French sites of Chauvet Cave (34,000 BC) and Lascaux Cave (19,000 BC), exemplifies the dramatic beauty of Franco-Cantabrian art, due to its sophisticated cave painting and the technical workmanship of its unknown artists.

Amazingly, all of Altamira's painting is hunter-gatherer art, created by semi nomadic hunter communities.


About 11,000 BC, a rockfall sealed the entrance to Altamira. Thereafter, no one entered the cave until its rediscovery, in 1868, by Modesto Peres, a local hunter.

However, it wasn't until 1879, that the paintings on the ceiling of the cave were discovered. They were spotted by Maria, daughter of Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola (1831-88) the local land owner and amateur archaeologist, while her father was digging in the cave for ancient artifacts.

Accompanied by Juan Vilanova y Piera, an archaeologist from the University of Madrid, Don Marcelino took a closer look at the cave and in 1880 the pair published descriptions of their finds.

Scientists who read about the art in the report, including the French scholars Gabriel de Mortillet and Emile Cartailhac, dismissed it out of hand as being entirely beyond the capability of Paleolithic cave men.

It was not until 1902 that they admitted their error and acknowledged the antiquity of the paintings. Even then, it wasn't until the eminent archaeologist Henri Breuil (1877-1961) published hand-drawn reproductions of the paintings in the mid 1900s, that the true significance of the site became widely known.

Altamira remained the world's greatest treasury of prehistoric art, until its eclipse by the Lascaux in the late 1940s.

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The Cave of Altamira is located in a limestone plateau area near the northern coast of Spain, close to Santillana del Mar, about 30 km west of Santander.

It is one of eighteen caves belonging to the Cantabrian Corniche, which together provide a complete range of paleolithic art from the Aurignacian to the Magdalenian.

Paleolithic Art in Spain

Numerous Spanish caves are found along the mountains of Northern Spain near the Atlantic coast, astride a major migratory route taken by modern humans.

The route led from the east coast of Africa, north to the Mediterranean then west along the coast of North Africa, then across the Straits of Gibraltar and through Spain into France.

Once in Europe, modern humans (Cro-Magnons) rapidly displaced the indigenous Neanderthals across Europe.

But even though H. neanderthalensis proved no match for H. sapiens, they were the first human species to produce art in Europe.

The main Stone Age caves run by Neanderthals until their eclipse, included: Los Aviones (Cartagena), Ardales Cave (Málaga), the Cave of Maltravieso (Cáceres), and Gorham's Cave in Gibraltar.

Human Occupation

Unlike many other caves of the Upper Paleolithic, Altamira was a place of domestic habitation, although the living quarters were limited to the area of the cave mouth and lobby.

Recent analysis of the stratigraphic sequence of deposits found in the lobby area, shows eight distinct layers: five from the Magdalenian (dated 13,500-12,000 BC); two from the Solutrean (dated 17,600-15,200 BC); and a bottom layer, from the Gravettian (dated 20,000 BC).

In 2008, British researchers using the Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) dating method, found that one particular abstract sign in the cave dated back to at least 34,000 BC.

So Altamira was first decorated during the Aurignacian culture, and its artworks were produced over a span of 21,000 years, from roughly 34,000 to 13,000 BC.

Archaeology at Altamira

For a short guide to archaeological digs, see: Archaeology: Prehistoric & Ancient.

Altamira Cave Layout

The underground layout of the cave is relatively simple and extends for roughly 270 metres in length. It has three main galleries:

Side areas and panels include: the Chamber of the Tectiforms (roof-shaped signs) ("Sala de los tectiformes"), the Chamber of the Black Bison ("Sala del bisonte negro"), and others.

General layout of Altamira Cave, showing main areas of paleolithic decoration
Fig 1. Altamira Cave Layout.

Chamber of the Frescoes

The Chamber of the Frescoes ("Gran Sala de los polícromos" or "Sala de los Frescos") is the main picture gallery and contains most of the cave's paintings.

Measuring 18 metres in length, and around 9-10 metres in width, its dominant feature is an extremely low ceiling (just over 1 metre high).

This is covered with about one hundred pictures of animals, mostly bison, painted in a beautiful polychrome of red, black and violet - hence its name, "The Ceiling of the Bison".

Other paintings feature horses, wild boars (including a wild boar with eight legs), a female deer more than two metres long, and a stag, as well as engravings of eight anthropomorphic figures, a quantity of handprints and hand stencils.

Only four aurochs are featured in Altamira, but all have similar styles. On the main ceiling, for instance, a large bull almost 3 metres long is partially obscured by a polychrome bison. The outlines of his forehead and belly follow natural cracks in the rock surface. The dorsal line is emphasized by a wide charcoal band, partially incised.

Part of the main ceiling is known as the "Ceiling of the Red Horses". It includes animals painted in red, engraved signs, handprints and a number of dots.

Eleven large red animals, mostly horses, were originally spread across part of the ceiling. They are the oldest rock art on the vault.

The painting sequence is interesting. First, the ceiling was painted with red figures, notably those of horses.

Next, the female deer were painted, along with the part-animal, part-human figures.

Lastly, the large multi-coloured bison were added. And in a sad finale, a few charcoal drawings of bison were added, just before the entrance collapsed.

Chamber of the Hole

The Chamber of the Hole ("Sala de la Hoya"), also known as the Chamber of the Basin, contains a number of charcoal animal paintings, plus engravings of various types.

The Horse's Tail

Layout of the End Passage at Altamira Cave, known as the Horse's Tail
Fig 2. Layout of the Horse's Tail.

The End Passage at Altamira, known as the Horse's Tail ("Cola de Caballo"), is a narrow passageway located at the end of the cave.

It's about 50 metres long, one metre high and one metre wide, and contains a large number of different abstract signs and symbols.

Altamira Cave Art: Characteristics

As mentioned, Altamira's cave art was created over a period of 21,000 years, from roughly 34,000 to 13,000 BC.

The cave was decorated and redecorated repeatedly, with artists augmenting older works or adding to them, or using them in new figures.

Altamira has four types of parietal art:

As we have seen, subjects are mostly animals (bison, horses, boar, deer), but there are also eight anthropomorphic figures and a large quantity of abstract symbols.

What makes Altamira's Paintings Unique?

Abstract Symbols

Altamira also contains a large quantity of Abstract signs and symbols, none of which are understood.

They include a wide variety of sign types, notably tectiforms (hut-shaped images) and Spanish tectiforms, which are found in the deepest part of the cave.

Also, near the Sala de los polícromos a narrow side-passage is decorated with red signs. One sign is made up of four irregular ovals. Another sign, about three metres in length and consisting of long red bands of parallel lines crossed by small lines at right-angles, is located under a protruding rock.

Lastly, there is a quantity of finger-fluting and other markings.

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According to the latest Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) dating methods, the oldest art at Altamira is a large red claviform symbol from the ceiling of the Chamber of Frescoes, which dates to the era of Aurignacian art, no later than 34,160 BC.

The second oldest artwork is a red dotted outline horse, also from the ceiling of the Chamber of Frescoes, dated to 20,100 BC.

As far as the multi-coloured bison are concerned, most were created during the early period of Magdalenian art, between 15,000 and 13,000 BC.

Bison were a critical source of food and other materials for Magdalenians - one reason they were so widely painted and sculpted.

See also: World's Oldest Art.

Caves with Bison Paintings

Altamira shares this veneration for the bison with other Magdalenian sites in France as well as Spain, such as Tuc D'Audoubert Cave (bison sculptures), Font-de-Gaume (bison frieze, salon des bisons), Niaux Cave (alcove of the bison), and the Santimamiñe Cave in Spain, where 32 out of 50 animals represented are bison.

Prehistoric Spray-Painting

At Altamira, as at Lascaux, artists did not typically use brushes to apply paint. Instead they favoured pads of moss or animal hair, or even chunks of raw colour. In addition, they mastered the technique of spray-painting, using hollowed out bones or plant material, to blow paint onto the rock surface.

Here's how it's done:

Drawing Technique

The technique used to draw animals (say) on the ceiling of the Chamber of the Frescoes, was simple.

Use of Colour

Colour is the dominant feature of Altamira's paintings, although the pigments used were the same as those used elsewhere in Cantabria.

Here, as elsewhere, artists utilized the same Stone Age colour palette, of black, most shades of red, along with a range of warm colours, from earth brown to straw yellow.

Nearly all these colours were made from ochre pigments (iron oxides). Hematite and goethite were used to make the reds, yellow and browns, while manganese and charcoal made the blacks.

Different shades were made by diluting the pigment with plant juices, animal blood or saliva, or by scraping the rock to create a paler surface.

Conservation Problems

Like many other Stone Age sites, Altamira has been dogged by conservation problems.

In 2002, after green mold appeared on the walls, the cave was closed to the public.

Meanwhile, the Spanish Ministry of Culture has opened a replica cave at the adjacent National Museum and Research Center of Altamira. Another replica is on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid.

The replicas permit a more comfortable view of the polychrome bison paintings on the ceiling of the main gallery ("techo de los polícromos").

Altamira World Heritage Site

In 2008, the Altamira World Heritage complex was broadened, and now includes:



Basque region

Open Air Rock Art

The main outdoor site on the Iberian Peninsula is the Coa Valley (dating to at least 22,000 BC) in northeast Portugal.

In 1998, UNESCO designated the 'Prehistoric Sites of the Côa Valley' a World Heritage Site.

In 2010, UNESCO extended the Côa Valley World Heritage site to include the engravings at Siega Verde (just across the border in Spain).

NEXT: To understand how Altamira's cave art fits into the evolution of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.


(1) "U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain." A. W. G. Pike et al. Science 336, 1409 (2012).
(2) "Cro-Magnon man (The Emergence of man)." Tom Prideaux. Time-Life Books; Revised edition (January 1, 1975).
(3) "Altamira". The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art (3rd ed.). Ian Chilvers, ed. (2004). Oxford University Press. p. 18. ISBN 0-19-860476-9.

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