The Paleolithic cave art at Altamira, in the Cantabria region of northern Spain, will soon be open to visitors. Altamira’s paintings of bison, deer, and other animals date from 14,000 to 20,000 years ago and are some of the best preserved of all prehistoric cave art. Even more intriguing are the hand prints by the artists themselves.
Cantabria’s Culture Ministry and Altamira’s board of directors have decided to reopen the site sometime next year. Access will be limited and they did not release details as to the number of people who will be allowed into the cave. Altamira has been closed since 2002 because even the few visitors allowed at that time affected the delicate environment that had preserved the paintings for so many millennia. Like at the famous Paleolithic cave of Lascaux in France, mold has started growing on some of the paintings. The circulation of air from people coming and going changes the temperature, and their breath changes the humidity.
Some archaeologists have criticized the move, saying that allowing visitors will increase the damage already done. If the plans to reopen Altamira go through, it could lead to a controversy similar to the one surrounding Lascaux, which has seen a group of scientists called the International Committee for the Preservation of Lascaux call for an independent investigation into how the cave is managed.
Photo of Altamira reproduction at Madrid’s Museo Arqueológico Nacional de España courtesy José-Manuel Benito.