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Caves of Altamira & Atapuerca

Prehistoric Cave Paintings

Altamira & Atapuerca caves are famous archeological sites in Spain, both were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We invite you to learn more about them.

Spain is not only rich in culture and tradition but also in human history. Some of the earliest human habitants can be traced to regions of Spain where many archeological sites have been discovered. In particular, the caves of Altamira and Atapuerca are exceptional illustrations of human history and cultural tradition that have given scientists valuable insights to our human heritage. UNESCO proclaimed them both World Heritage Sites: Altamira in 1985 and Atapuerca in 2000, respectively.

Altamira Cave Paitings

Located 18.5 mi. (30 km) northwest of Santander, near the charming town of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria, Spain is the Altamira Cave, famous for its Upper Paleolithic cave paintings of wild animals and human hands.

The cave consists of various chambers and passages covered in paintings. The cave paintings were created with the aid of charcoal, ochre or haematite. As an example to the human artistic intelligence of the time, even the natural contours of the cave walls were exploited to create a three-dimensional effect. The most famous part of the cave of Altamira is the polychrome ceiling featuring a heard of bison, horses, a large deer and a wild boar. Scientists used uranium-thorium dating to estimate that the Altamira’s paintings are from 25,000 to 35,000 years old, and were likely painted over thousands of years.

Approximately 13,000 years ago, the entrance to the cave was sealed off due to a rockslide. This phenomenon preserved the cave’s contents until its eventual discovery in 1879 by archeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola. The archeologist would claim that the cave’s paintings were Paleolithic in origin. His declarations about the cave of Altamira provoked a lot of controversy and ridicule because it was believed that prehistoric man was not sufficiently intelligent to produce artwork. The supreme artistic quality and exceptional state of conservation of the cave paintings led Sautuola to be accused of forgery. In 1902 other prehistoric cave paintings were found in Spain forcing the scientific society to publically recognize their error.

In 1977, the cave of Altamira was closed to the public because the paintings were being damaged by the carbon dioxide produced by the visitors. It was later reopened with limited access until a replica cave was completed in 2001. The reproduction of the cave of Altamira allows visitors to have a more comfortable view of the paintings and even includes some features that cannot be visited in the real cave.

Since the discovery of the cave of Altamira, other similar caves, of less importance, have been found in Northern Spain and were later included as part of the Altamira World Heritage Site


The Atapuerca Mountains, or Sierra de Atapuerca in Spanish, are located near Burgos, Spain. Among the hills, several caves were discovered which have proved rich in fossil records dating back up to almost a million years ago. The exceptional amount of artifacts and fossils found at Atapuerca of the earliest human inhabitants of Europe has yielded priceless information to society. In recognition of this, UNESCO declared the archeological site of Atapuerca as a World Heritage Site in 2000.

Excavation in Atapuerca has yielded numerous fossils of animals and tools, ceramic artifacts, rock paintings, evidence of cannibalism as well as a tooth and jawbone fragment of the earliest West European hominid. Undoubtedly the most important site in Atapuerca is the Sima de los Huesos. Here, at the bottom of a 50 ft. (13 m) pit, 5,500 human bones of at least 350,000 years of age, 28 skeletons of Homo heidelbergensis, an ancient bear species and a two sided cutting tool were discovered. The important finding suggests ancient burial practices.

Today, the archeological site of Atapuerca is a highly prestigious scientific project that forms part of our global cultural heritage. The high quality research has produced numerous publications in scientific journals bringing the discoveries to an international forefront and demonstrating the extraordinary significance of this unique archeological site in Spain.