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Altamira: A Chance to Reconsider the Past

How old is old?

I drove through my town in Ohio last week­end with out-of-town guests and was proud to show off a build­ing con­struct­ed (at least the orig­i­nal foun­da­tion) almost 180 years ago. That’s pret­ty impres­sive by post-colo­nial Amer­i­can stan­dards! I believe that this fas­ci­na­tion with our past is one thing that inspires us to trav­el. We want to con­nect with the past, and Europe is a com­fort­able place to do that. As I trav­el through Spain, I am in awe of the struc­tures that remain in place 1000 years, even 2000 years since they were orig­i­nal­ly erect­ed. I feel a sense of con­nec­tion with these Iberi­ans because peo­ple wrote about them. We know who they were (in a gen­er­al sense), where they came from, and what inspired them. 

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The 2000 year old Aqueduct of Segovia

Most of us can con­cep­tu­al­ize our exis­tence in an his­tor­i­cal con­text”. His­to­ry is often defined as the human sto­ry since the devel­op­ment of writ­ing sys­tems. Most his­to­ri­ans agree that the first def­i­nite writ­ing sys­tems emerged in about 3200 BCE. So most of us have some famil­iar­i­ty with our human sto­ry since that time. Pri­or to that point, how­ev­er, putting our­selves in per­spec­tive can be less cer­tain and more daunt­ing. Now, rather deal­ing with about 5200 years, we are deal­ing with almost 200,000 years (the point at which Homo Sapi­ens became dominant).

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Artist's rendering of an Upper Paleolithic Iberian

Con­nect­ing with those that came before is more con­cep­tu­al­ly chal­leng­ing for us not just because of the scale of time, but also because they did not leave as many clues. That being said, just like ear­ly Native Amer­i­cans, we can con­nect with them in ways that often take us beyond archi­tec­ture or the writ­ten word. We can con­nect through art. 

The Iber­ian Penin­su­la (Spain specif­i­cal­ly) con­tains the old­est known cave paint­ings in Europe. These paint­ings are at least 40,000 years old, and maybe as old as 70,000 years. Experts dis­agree. This peri­od, down through about 10,000 BCE is known as the Upper Pale­olith­ic (Late Stone Age) peri­od. The crown jew­el of Pale­olith­ic Iber­ian Art is the Altami­ra cave com­plex near the vil­lage of San­til­lana del Mar in the region of Cantabria. 

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Altamira is easily accessible from the beatiful seaside city of Santander

The cave com­plex at Altami­ra is world-renowned for its remark­able etch­ings and paint­ings, espe­cial­ly of now-extinct bison. There are sev­er­al things that make it spe­cial, even when com­pared to oth­er sim­i­lar sites. 

First is the poly­chro­mat­ic (mul­ti­col­ored) nature of the paint­ings. The rich col­ors of the orig­i­nal art were pre­served when a land­slide cov­ered the entrance to the cave in about 12,000 BCE. When the cave was re-dis­cov­ered in the 19th Cen­tu­ry, most spe­cial­ists believed that the images were forged because Stone Age artists could not have been sophis­ti­cat­ed enough to cre­ate such com­plex draw­ings and engrav­ings. Of course, they have now been proven as authen­tic. See the lay­ers of col­ors and per­spec­tives in the image below. 

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A sec­ond rea­son that these caves are so spe­cial is that we know (through mod­ern dat­ing tech­niques) that these paint­ings were cre­at­ed over a peri­od of 20,000 years. Think about that in mod­ern terms. It’s real­ly hard to get your head around. The sub­jects are main­ly ani­mals, drawn with remark­able accu­ra­cy. There is also abstract art and sym­bols that still have not been inter­pret­ed. In any case, these artists com­mu­ni­cat­ed not only with one anoth­er but across so many gen­er­a­tions with these paint­ings. (You are about 1300 gen­er­a­tions away from the orig­i­nal Altami­ra artists in case you were curious.)

A final rea­son (for me at least) that this site is so spe­cial is that we can vis­it it so con­ve­nient­ly. Well, there is a caveat. Most tourists can­not vis­it the orig­i­nal cave. Instead, you can vis­it a metic­u­lous­ly re-cre­at­ed ver­sion. A new cave was con­struct­ed to reduce the human impact on the orig­i­nal paint­ings. While this may sound dis­ap­point­ing, it is in fact a won­der­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty. If I had not been told I was in a repli­ca cave, I would not have known. I was not hur­ried, and I did not need to wear pro­tec­tive cloth­ing, as I would have if I had vis­it­ed the orig­i­nal cave sev­er­al hun­dred meters away. This repli­ca, along with the remark­able on-site muse­um allows vis­i­tors to con­nect very inti­mate­ly with the envi­ron­ment. NOTE: If you feel com­pelled to vis­it the orig­i­nal cave, there is a dai­ly lot­tery (not-avail­able dur­ing Covid) that pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty for 4 or 5 guests to vis­it the orig­i­nal chamber. 

My vis­it to Altami­ra gave me a sense of peace. For the first time, I felt like I could extend my com­fort zone in the con­text of the human sto­ry. 35,000 years did not have to be such an abstract con­cept. We will nev­er know every­thing about these peo­ple (per­haps our ances­tors), but we can con­nect with them through their art. And that’s something. 

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