The Altamira Cave Paintings

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By EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD


Sanz de Sautuola
Location of Cantabria
Map: Mutxamel
altamira cave paintings
Bison — Altamira Cave
(Enlarged view)
altamira cave paintings
Sketch showing how the paintings are arranged
From: Sautuola (1880)
altamira cave paintings
Bison, Altamira — Modern reproduction on paper
The paintings of Altamira Cave, now recognized as some of the oldest and finest paleolithic paintings in Europe, were discovered by the now famous Spanish spelunker Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola (1831–1888). At the time, cave paintings were as yet unknown to archaeological science.

During the 1870s de Sautuola had begun spending his spare time probing the caves of his native Cantabria, a region in the extreme north of Spain, on the Bay of Biscay.

It was in the summer of 1879, in Altamira cave, after many such excursions, that his little daughter Maria suddenly cried out — "Mira papá! Bueyes pintados!" (Look, papa! Painted bulls!).

De Sautuola followed his daughter's eyes to the ceiling — "No son bueyes," he whispered, gazing upward. "Son bisontes!" (They aren't bulls. They're bison!). He saw at once that this was prehistoric art — No bison had lived in Spain in historic times.

European bison
A Wisent (European bison)
Photo: Jairo S. Feris Delgado
Altamira cave plan
Plan of cave — A: Entrance
B: Painted gallery.
The wisent, or European bison (see figure left), is an animal to all appearances identical to the American bison, or buffalo. The two are treated, however, as separate species (their scientific names are, respectively, Bison bonasus and Bison bison). Once widespread and abundant in Eurasia, the wisent has long teetered on the verge of extinction. A small herd survives in Bialowieski National Park in Poland.

When de Sautuola published, at his own expense, a book of illustrations presenting the paintings and drawings he had found in the cave, many people thought it was all a hoax. They could not believe prehistoric humans would be able to produce art of any kind (especially given the fact that many modern humans can't draw!).

Of course, the fact that cave art is genuine is well accepted today.

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