Altamira: Mystery of Art and Colours


Altamira (meaning high view in Spanish) is an ancient cave located in Northern Spain, situated 19 miles west of the port city of Santander in Cantabria province; it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

It is famous for its magnificent prehistoric paintings and engravings, drawings and polychrome rock paintings of wild mammals and human hands. The cave was discovered by a hunter in 1868 and only much later visited by Don Marcelino, a local nobleman and amateur archaeologist. When he excavated the floor of the cave’s entrance chamber, he unearthed animal bones and stone tools. On another visit, his eight-year-old daughter, Maria, who accompanied him, was the first to notice the paintings of bison on the ceiling of a side chamber.

After further excavations, Marcelino and archaeologist Juan Vilanova Piera from the University of Madrid stated in a much acclaimed publication in 1880 the paintings as being Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) in origin. Naturally, as is usually the case, their findings were widely ridiculed at the 1880 Pre-historical Congress in Lisbon. Finally, in 1902, the authenticity of the paintings was acknowledged and this changed forever the perception of prehistoric human beings.

The cave is approximately 300 meters long and consists of a series of twisting passages and chambers. Human occupation was limited to the cave mouth, although paintings were created throughout the length of the cave. The unknown people used charcoal, ochre and haematite for the images, and also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give their subjects a three-dimensional effect. The Polychrome Ceiling is the most impressive feature of the cave, depicting a herd of extinct steppe bison, two horses, a large doe and what appears to be a wild boar.

The walls and ceilings of the Altamira caves lack the soot deposits which have been found in other similar caves. This is suggestive of the fact that the people at Altamira had more advanced lighting technology which gave off less smoke and soot than the torches and fat lamps which Paleolithic people are credited with.

The Palaeolithic people decorated their cave walls either by carving or engraving them with sharp stones, or by painting them with pigment made from minerals. Red (rust) colors were obtained from iron oxide; black came either from charcoal or manganese dioxide; and white, which was rarely used, came from kaolin or kaolinite. These minerals were ground up on pestles and mortars, and combined to produce a variety of colors. They were then mixed with water to make paint.

Archaeologists used to think that the pigments were mixed with oils or fats, but experiments have shown that this does not work. The paints were applied to the walls either with fingers, fur, or brushes made from twigs. It may be that the artists also used blues and greens obtained from plants such as woad, but these colors have faded from the walls, and so we cannot be certain of this.

Scientists continue to evaluate the age of the cave art at Altamira. In 2008, researchers using uranium-thorium dating found that the paintings were completed over a period of up to 20,000 years rather than during a comparatively brief period. In 2012, further uranium-thorium dating research was published supporting an older age for portions of the art, including one claviform image at 35,600 years old. We don’t know who these people were.

Paleolithic societies survived up to our days in some places in Africa (Bushmen and pygmies), Australia (Aborigines), South America (like in Tierra del Fuego and other places).

Speaking about Altamira and the technical advancement of that age, Osho says,

In Europe in 1880 the caves of Altamira were discovered. In those caves there are coloured pictures said to have been drawn twenty thousand years ago. But the colours of the pictures look as fresh as if they were painted yesterday. Because of this, Don Marcelino, who discovered these caves, was criticized all over Europe. Everyone thought that he had touched up the pictures. All the artists who saw the pictures said Marcelino was trying to fool the public, that such fresh colours could not be ancient.

What they were saying was right, in a way, because the paintings of Van Gogh, which are not even one hundred years old, are already fading; the pictures Picasso painted in his youth have become as old as he himself. The colours used these days by artists throughout the world don’t last more than a hundred years; they are bound to fade within a century.

But when the investigation of the caves Marcelino found was completed, it was proved beyond doubt that the caves were more than twenty thousand years old. This is a great mystery, because those who painted those colours seem to have known much more about colours than we know at present. We may have been able to reach the moon, but we have not been able to make colours that can remain fresh and last longer than a hundred years. Those who made these colours twenty thousand years ago knew much more about the science of colour than we do.

Osho, The Hidden Mysteries, Ch 4 (Translated from Hindi)

Text by Naina

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