Altamira Cave and the First Charcoal Artists

In 1996, while traveling through northern Spain, I had the rare chance to visit the Cave of Altamira, famously called the “Sistine Chapel” of Paleolithic art. The charcoal, ochre and hematite paintings gracing the naturally vaulted space were completed, according to uranium-thorium dating, over a period of 20,000 years, all between 14,000 and 35,000 years ago.

I was very fortunate; I didn’t have to wear a special suit or mask, hope that my name would be drawn from a lottery, or content myself with touring the life-sized replica created to divert tourists, whose sweat, movement and carbon dioxide were slowly destroying the paintings. The cave had been cut off to mass tourism in 1977, and would be completely closed again in 2002. Controversy currently surrounds its reopening this year, to five randomly-selected people per day. Back then, all I had to do was get up early, sit on a bench, and wait for a few hours in the early-morning light.

We were instructed to arrive at the site at 6 a.m. in order to secure a place in line. Only a handful of us—between six and eight—would be allowed in. To my initial disappointment, a number of people, including a large family, were already milling about and forming a tight order of entry, neatly exceeding the number of allowed visitors per day by one. I decided to wait it out, and miraculously, when the appointed time for the tour finally came around a few hours later, the father of the family said he didn’t want to go in. I was allowed a place.

Located near the village of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, northern Spain, the massive interior cave was discovered in 1879 by a curious nine-year-old girl named Maria, who gained permission to explore a darkened corridor and called out to her father, archeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who was working outside. The father-and-daughter team had already been digging for four years together at the mouth of the cave, discovering artifacts proving human habitation such as oyster shells, animal bones, stone tools, and ceramic shards. The main entrance had previously remained sealed for 13,000 years, blocked by fallen rock which had acted to protect the pristine state of the paintings inside.

Altamira Cave Paintings

The ceiling is covered with striking, orangey-scarlet images of enormous steppe bison, horses, and deer, all executed in charcoal, ochre and hematite over natural protrusions in the rock, imbuing the animals with realism and full dimensionality. By natural torchlight, the animals are said to appear to be in motion: a living, breathing, running, stampeding herd. When our guide briefly lit a small candle, the effect was not at all difficult to conjure.

What kinds of effects could charcoal artists produce today using variable, natural surfaces and effects of moving light? What would happen if we put down our two-dimensional easels and pads of paper, and allowed our imaginations to soar back to the visions of our distant ancestors?

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