Things They Never Told Me About Spanish History: Altamira

Many years ago I went to meet up with my parents while they were traveling in the south of France.   It was the beginning of the 1990s and getting around the Old World was considerably less traveler-friendly than it is today due to a highly European glitch in the system: the strike.  The common strike.  The almost everyday strike.  You see, you had your common bus strike, your common train strike, your common subway strike.  I tell you, no one knew more about how to restrict mobility than the European public transportation system.   Nowadays it seems as if the old-fashioned walkout has gone the way of the Walkman.  Except for the metro (it would be a year without Christmas if they didn’t let you down at least once), taxi-drivers (because they just do), and the people at Barcelona’s Prat Airport (for some reason, they are always in a bad mood in summertime), unions aren’t sticking it to their bosses the way they used to.


I could devote the rest of the post to narrating everything I had to endure just to get to say, “Hi Mom and Dad, I’m here!”, but I’ll spare you that part of the odyssey and sum it up by saying that, after two days (it should have taken about ten hours max) of struggling to reach my destination, which included an unsolicited night at a train station hotel, I ended up walking down some country road in the middle of the Dordogne trying to hitchhike to the chateau hotel where my parents were staying. By then I had already tried every known mode of transportation.  All that was left was my thumb.  But I eventually got there.


The trip that my parents had chosen had been organized by Columbia University and it was mainly cultural in nature, though everyone knows that no trip to the south of France is ever entirely cultural.  One of the stops scheduled between the delectable meals and copious wine tastings included a visit to the legendary prehistoric paintings cave Lascaux.  Though my personal drawing skills were and are no doubt similar in appearance, my actual understanding of primitive art at the time was limited, I’ll confess. But I did know enough to recognize that the prehistoric site we were about to engage represented something like the Wimbledon, the Louvre, the Bolshoi, the Sistine Chapel of holes in the ground.  In fact, that’s just how the guide who conducted the tour described it.  Except she said it in French and made it sound we were entering sacred ground.  She had Frenchy short hair (minus the beret), wore little makeup, librarian’s glasses and donned a sexy khaki field work dress that made her prêt a excavate on a moment’s notice.  What can I say?  That’s the way French archeologists must be.  She led the tour quite well, and it certainly was an impressive place.


I returned to Spain and, once back on the couch of my pad, told Pepe all about the adventures.  He was sitting in a worn armchair which should have already paid a permanent visit to the local junkyard.  In fact, I can’t be sure it hadn’t been rescued from one. Pepe, who was still waiting for the call of a lifetime, took a drag from his Fortuna cigarette and shook his head.  “Lascaux?  You gotta be kidding me?”


“Good job, don’t you think?”


“What do you mean, good job?  Those frogs always beat us to it.  It drives me nuts.  How could you go there when you have the best cave art in the world here.  Right in your own backyard?”


“I didn’t know that.”


“Of course you didn’t.  It’s not your fault.  This is all part of the great British smear campaign against Spain.  Ever since Sir Francis Drake, the world’s only pirate to get knighted by a queen, this country’s reputation has never been the same.”  I had no idea where this was going.  I had always been taught Drake was a cool guy.  Apparently not, but we’ll get to him later on.


Pepe went on.  “Don’t you know that in Cantabria, our beloved Cantabria, there is a cave called Altamira?”


“Isn’t that the cannibal place?”


“That’s Atapuerca.”


“That’s right.  Couldn’t you vary your names a bit?  This is all very confusing to me.”


“Don’t get me sidetracked.  Altamira is the finest collection of rock art on this planet.  They call it the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art.”


“That’s interesting.  That’s just how the French guide described Lascaux.”


“How original!  They copy everything.”  He stood up and tucked in his shirt.  “Listen, I don’t collect my unemployment check until tomorrow.  If you want, we can go down and you can treat me to some cañas and I’ll tell you all about it.”


I was kind of wiped out from all the traveling but I didn’t see a way out of it.  “All right, let’s do it.”


Europe is without a doubt a continent chock full of memorable examples of prehistoric symbols, drawings and paintings.  They are mostly located in caves because those dark and protected places happen to be ideal for their preservation.  Altamira is one of them. In fact, it’s a lot more than that.  It was discovered in 1868 by a local man named Modesto Cubilla, who was out hunting with his dog.  Actually, we should give the dog credit for revealing its existence.  Cubillas didn’t seem to venture very far and, from my understanding, didn’t know there were paintings inside, but he did tell Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola all about it.  Sanz was one of those local lords who, because of their ties to nobility and sizable estate, had the time and the means to devote their energy to the sciences, just for fun.  In this case, paleontology was his thing.  It would seem that he didn’t give much importance to what Cubilla had to say, because eleven years would pass before he decided to take a look.  In 1879, he wandered up with his eight-year-old daughter María and sent her inside to see what was up.  I don’t know about you, but my 2017 perspective struggles to comprehend why this man would have his little girl, who would have been in the third grade at the time, explore an uncharted cave on her own given the obvious potential dangers one could encounter.  But I guess those were different times…or Sanz was just a coward.  In any event, the girl shouted back from the bowels of the grutte the now famous exclamation, “Daddy! Look!  Oxen!”


Maria hadn’t really regarded depictions of oxen, but just about every other known fauna was there.  Horses, deer, boars, mammoths, reindeer and especially bison.  Lots of bison.  The artwork is remarkable not only its use of color and shading, though they are evidently first rate.  There are also indisputable examples of the artist taking advantage of the relief of the rock to give the impression of volume.  The depiction of the bison whose body is curled in a ball to fit the stone sticking out of the wall is my favorite.  It’s a masterpiece. The work of an anonymous genius.  Proof of the importance of creativity in terms of the workings of the human brain.


These paintings are said to have influenced numerous artists since their discovery, but they must have been a source of frustration because after 17,000 years, you get the feeling things in the art world have not progressed that much.


The quality of the artwork is such that at first a number of experts, who happened to be French obviously, questioned its authenticity.  “Questioned” is an understatement.  They outright accused Sanz of faking the paintings, or of being duped by some other sly individual into believing they were the real McCoy.  Those practices weren’t unheard of back then.  But years later, when the French discovered similar paintings in their own caves, they began to change their minds.  Naturally.  One scholar even had the decency to admit formally in Anthropology magazine that he had made a mistake.  By that time, however, Sanz had been dead for some ten years so he could not see his battered reputation restored to the dignity it deserved, but the posthumous bit of recognition was better than nothing.


When Lascaux was discovered in 1940, the sensational find awed the world, eclipsing Altamira and relegating it to a distant second in world common knowledge.  Once again, the French proved to have a knack for having so many aspects of their culture take center stage, much to the frustration of the Spanish.  Something similar happened to other legendary 20th Century figures like Picasso, whom far too many people still believe was French.  Though he spent many years in France and died there, he was born in Malaga, lived many years in Barcelona and expressed his love of and concern for Spain in this art throughout his prolific life.  Ironically, Picasso is once said to have claimed that “After Altamira, everything is decadence.”  That could easily be apocryphal, but it sounds like something he might think.  Who knows.


The problem with dark and protected places is that once they aren’t so dark or protected, gases like oxygen get in start to do what gases like oxygen are so good at: corrode.  They also foster the growth of fungus.  Both side effects have led to a severe curtailing of visits by human beings.  The original site is now closed to only an exclusive few each year.  The rest of us mortals have to settle for a replica nearby.  You can also view of life-size facsimile of the sala grande in an underground room outside the entrance of Madrid’s excellent archeology museum (MAN) right in the heart of the city.

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