Video: The Prehistoric Cave Art Of Cantabria, Spain

One of the advantages of living in Europe is that you can visit lots of historic sites with your kids. This fosters an interest in the past, reduces museum fatigue and is a great way to learn together.

I live in Cantabria, on the north coast of Spain, a region filled with historic sites from Napoleonic forts to preserved Roman towns. Cantabria is most famous for the prehistoric cave art in ten caves that have been given UNESCO World Heritage status. From about 17,000 to 11,000 years ago, people decorated Cantabria’s many caves with pictures of bison, horses and other animals. They often used the natural contours of the rock to give the animals a three-dimensional look. In addition to the animals, there are strange patterns of lines and dots. Archaeologists have spent generations arguing over what these mean, but of course we’ll never know for sure.

My son is going on a school trip this week to Cantabria’s most famous cave, Altamira, and he’s looking forward to visiting a place that Dad has never seen. Yes, my 6-year-old is already competing with me for travel stories! And now he’s reminding me that I haven’t been to the Madrid train museum either. OK, kid, you win.

For more on the Paleolithic cave art of Cantabria, check out this video by Turismo Cantabria, which only has 267 views on YouTube. Sounds to me like Turismo Cantabria need to do more marketing. This is a great part of Spain for hikes, beaches and food, and makes a great alternative to the usual tourist circuit.

Altamira prehistoric painted cave to reopen

One of Europe’s most breathtaking examples of prehistoric art will soon be accessible to the public.

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.