Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Cave of Altamira

Parque de Cabárceno to Playa de Oyambre, 51 miles. 

One of the few ACSI campsites still open on the coast of Cantabria at this time of year is the Oyambre Caravan park situated between San Vicente de la Barquera and Comillas. We have visited the area before, we think it was in July 1999. We only lasted six nights as the weather fluctuated between chilly drizzle and humid fogs and after a few consecutive days stuck in a frame tent with three kids we headed back to sunny France. However in between the drizzly bits and the odd break in the fog we did realise some of the places we had squelched through, such as Comillas and Santilana del Mar, were probably delightful on a sunny day. So with a summery forecast for the next few days we had high hopes of discovering the charms of Cantabria, albeit somewhat belatedly. 

On the way we spent an hour or so in the museum at the site of the Cave of Altamira. The Palaeolithic art found there in 1879 predates the discoveries at Lascaux, but scholars at the time would not believe that our ancestors were capable of such sophistication and the find was dismissed as a hoax until later discoveries in the early twentieth century validated the prehistoric date. The actual cave has been closed for the last 20 years to preserve the original paintings, but the museum contains a replica of the famous 'bison ceiling'.


I felt very excited about seeing this as one of the areas of research for the final section of my dissertation involved an analysis of the work of Gary Snyder, particularly his essay collection from the 1970s, 'Turtle Island' and his epic, 'Mountains and Rivers without End'. His ideas are associated with the 'Deep Ecology' movement which argues that our hunter gatherer forebears (and contemporaries) may be much less technologically advanced than our civilisation, but aspects of their social organisation and their understanding of how, as a species, we co-inhabit our planet with others is superior to our notions of technological domination which have resulted in a kind of slash and burn mentality towards natural resources. 

The museum entrance fee of €3.00 euros must be the cheapest way possible to have your presumptions about human development turned on their head. Of course it would a magical experience to see the original, but given that is not possible you have to admire the skill and sensitivity of the museum designers, not only in the replica cave, but the supporting exhibition with artefacts - from flutes to bone butchery tools - video clips demonstrating Palaeolithic painting techniques and lots of information boards about the climate, landscape and the culture of these early Europeans - all aimed at answering simple questions like what did they eat, what did they wear and what did their music sound like? (Irish apparently- think whistle and bodhran!)

Replica paleolithic musical instuments

Actual drilled pebble beads used mainly as sewn decorations on hide clothing.
I managed to get quite a few pictures and a bit of video before being advised that it was not permitted. I found the film of the painting techniques particularly fascinating. The use of illusionistic effects and the loose, painterly handling show not merely a keen observant eye, but analytical acumen. No wonder the scholars of the 1870s doubted the work's veracity. Art critics in Paris at the time were berating Monet and Pissaro for their 'impressionism' and their gestural brushstroke. Impressionists suggest reality by reconstructing it in the viewers eye with a few deft dabs, an approach not dissimilar to the painters of Altamira and Lascaux.

The outline charcoal drawn figures pre-date the painted bison by abouth 2000 years




We left the museum and took a stroll to the site of the original cave. It's set in low rolling hill country, now neatly divided into fields. The cave opening is set into a small rocky out-crop, no more than 5 meters high, somewhat underwhelming for such a significant site. The bathetic effect was further enhanced by a big yellow skip placed by the entrance. The entire area was cordoned off and guarded by a very bored looking security guard.


As we walked back to the van we talked over some of the numbers involved. Research in the early twentieth century had established that the paintings dates from the Palaeolithic period. However recent techniques have been developed using methods derived from particle physics which are even more accurate than carbon dating, and these enable archaeologists to understand the chronology of the cave decoration. The earliest coloured marks, odd ochre coloured lines in abstract patterns, date from 36,000.BC. The more recognisable animal pictures belong to two main periods, images of deer and outlines of human hands date from around 18,500BC. The most sophisticated relief painting which use undulations in the rock face to give the images greater verisimilitude - the famous bison pictures - are thought to have been produced around 2000 years later. The rock fall which cut the cave from the outside world for 14,000 years happened sometime around 12,500BC. 

These time spans are staggering. The first ochre coloured marks date from the time of the first incursion of humans from Africa into the Iberian Peninsula. The later work is similar to the images from the Dordogne and Romania and suggest a common Palaeolithic tribal culture in Southern Europe in the interglacial period before the last ice age. That is 25,000 years of sporadic human habitation at the Cave of Altamira.

Pre-historic hand prints - some using palm prints, others outlines produced by a blown 'airbrush' technique.

In comparison we technically nifty humans have only been around in Europe for about 8000 years, herding animals and growing crops and making pots (6500BC.), forging metals, (3000BC), writing stuff down (1500BCish), having referenda (500BC), blowing each other up (1300ish), inventing powered machines (1712), developing manned space flight (1961), posting the first web page (August 1991), inventing ever more sophisticated methods of killing each other - the first US drone strike on foreign soil, - (7th October 2001), Facebook founded (February 2004), iPhone launched (July 2007).... As Carl Sagan pointed out, we techno-humans are mere adolescents. Our hunter-gatherer forefathers practised foraging for around 190,000 years. In comparison we have only settled down for the last 10,000. 

So far as we can tell our 'hunting fathers' were as intellectually capable as we are, their spoken language as complex and they maintained a stable life style for millennia. Our societies by comparison are deeply unstable, violent and given to destroying the planet into the bargain. Deep Ecologists make a simple point - what can modern humans learn from their ancestors, particularly in relation to our relationship with our home planet? 

In a sense, given my prior interest, it was inevitable that I would I would love the museum. I wondered what others might make of it, so I brought up Trip Advisor's reviews. There were a few moans and groans that the cave was 'fake', and one review likened the replica cave to Disneyland. I am uncertain if the reviewer felt this was a good or a bad thing. What was heartening were the majority of responses showed that most people do get why the place is significant. I particularly liked this one from a family from Finland: 
"..one can view and comprehend the intricate and highly elaborate drawings on the ceiling of the cave. These have not been drawn mere squiggles but rather as pre-planned and well executed works of art using the shades and the voluminosity of the rock to give it a 3D effect. Not bad for a 20.000-year-old human. Taking into consideration the age of the drawings and the limited resources available at that time, changes one’s concept of savage cavemen and it opens a window through which to view the human evolution from an entirely new perspective." 
Spot on!

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