The Caves of Altamira, which burrow into the hillside 2km west of Santillana, consist of an extraordinary series of caverns, adorned by prehistoric human inhabitants around fourteen thousand years ago with paintings of bulls, bison, boars and other animals. Etched in red and black with confident and impressionistic strokes, and sealed by a roof collapse a thousand years later, the murals were in near-perfect condition when rediscovered in the 1870s, their colours striking and vigorous; as Picasso put it, “After Altamira, everything is decadence”. During the 1950s and 1960s, however, they seriously deteriorated due to the moisture released in the breath of visitors, and the caves are now closed to prevent further damage.
Alongside the site, the fascinating Museo de Altamira centres on a “Neocave”, a large and very convincing replica of a portion of the caverns that gives a spine-tingling sense of how the paintings look in situ. Comprehensive displays in the adjoining galleries trace human history all the way back to Africa, with three-dimensional replicas and authentic finds from Altamira and other Spanish sites, and plentiful captions in English. No one knows exactly why the Paleolithic art at Altamira was created, but according to archeologists it was not primarily related to hunting, in that the specific animals depicted were not eaten any more than other species.