The Boars from Altamira: Fact or Fiction?

‘Side Note’: Altamira Re-Opening

After 12 years closed to visitors, Altamira cave, known for its spectacular paintings dating to the Palaeolithic, has re-opened to the public in 2014. And although only 5 people will be allowed to access the site each week, the decision to re-open this World Heritage Site is a controversial one.

A study published in Science back in 2011 warned of the conservation problems that would arise should large numbers of visitors be allowed to re-enter Altamira on a regular basis, as had already been the case in the past. In September 2002 the cave had to be closed to the public as a result of the extensive presence of phototrophic microorganisms on the paintings (Saiz-Jiménez et al. 2011), a very destructive bacterial invasion similar to that which affected the French cave site of Lascaux back in the 1950s.

The decision to close Altamira 12 years ago proved to be a wise move: survey and controls of both the cave’s environment and the paintings showed that the bacterial colonization had not advanced since 2002 –the microorganisms were nonetheless still present– and the rate of erosion on the paintings had diminished (Saiz-Jiménez et al. 2011). This decision has now been overturned after another group of experts concluded that the paintings would not be further damaged should small groups of visitors be allowed once again into Altamira. Whether these experts will live to regret their decision we are yet to find out, but let’s hope they are right: there is much more to be learnt from Altamira so it’s in our interest both as humans and archaeologists to preserve it for generations to come.

The Boars

Altamira collage
Figs 1-6: Depictions at Altamira.
Image source: Quesabesde.com (click on image to zoom in)

When one thinks of Altamira’s paintings, especially those of its Great Ceiling, images of strong, mobile, red bison tend to come to mind (Fig. 1). And although this is a partly accurate representation of what decorates this Cantabrian site’s walls and ceilings, its art is not all bison themed. The Great Ceiling and most walls throughout the cave also contain depictions of horses, some in motion, some fighting (Fig. 2); goats; red deer (Fig. 3); hands (Fig. 4); a variety of shapes (Fig. 5); and even rather scary-looking faces (Fig. 6).

The taxonomic identification of most of the animal representations at the site was assumed to be quite straightforward when these were first sketched and studied by the French archaeologist Henri Breuil (1935). There are three figures in particular, however, that triggered quite a bit of an academic debate a few decades ago, a controversy that seems to have now died out.

In his revision of Breuil’s work, Leslie Freeman (1987) declared that three of the figures identified by the French archaeologist as being boars were not, in fact, suids; based on his new observations, Freeman concluded that these three animals were clearly bison as wild boars are “somewhat out of place in the Altamira decorative assemblage” (page 81). He also argued that the boar-ish features of at least two of these animals are in fact the product of the ceiling’s undulations, a natural geological feature that prehistoric painters commonly made use of to add texture and sometimes the impression of movement to many of their artistic creations.

Although it is true that number 19 (Fig. 7) does very much look like a bison head (or a musk-ox, as suggested by @LeMoustier), I am not so inclined to agree with Freeman’s bison assignations to animals 14 and 15 (Fig. 7). Patricia Rice also disagreed with him back in 1992, a few years after his new interpretations were first published, and she put forward compelling data and arguments to support her claims, based mostly on four anatomical ratios, listed below. “These four ratios provide two basic morphological indicators: 1) the shape of the animal’s body (based on Ratios 1 and 2); and 2) the relative length of the legs (based on Ratios 3 and 4)” (Rice 1992: 24). The purpose of using these ratios was to demonstrate possible morphological differences between the figures given that modern bison and wild boar shows different values for ratios 1, 2, 3 and 4 as a result of their different body shapes and leg length.

  • Ratio 1: between body length and body height;
  • Ratio 2: between body length and total height;
  • Ratio 3: between total height at hindquarters and length of back legs; and
  • Ratio 4: between total height at forequarters and length of front legs.

Altamira rice

Fig. 7: The Altamira ceiling. ‘Mystery’ animals highlighted in grey. Image source: Rice 1992: 25 (modified)

Rice table
Table 1: Four ratios based on morphological measurements of 16 animals on the Altamira ceiling. Animal 14a is mystery animal 14 as reidentified and redrawn by Freeman (1987: 84).
Table source: Rice 1992: 26.

As Rice’s results show (Table 1), ‘mystery’ animals 14 and 15 show much smaller values for each of the ratios than the rest of the animals and their averages. These ratio differences would suggest that these two animals are morphologically different to the rest drawn on Altamira’s ceiling. Given that it was concluded by Freeman et al. that the rest of the animals depicted are bison, 14 and 15 would therefore be representing something other than bison. Wild boar, perhaps? Rice also argues that the values for three of the four ratios of ‘mystery’ animal 14 are very similar to those obtained from modern wild boar specimens, which would therefore be indicating that animal 14 is likely representing a Palaeolithic suid-type individual. Do you agree with Rice’s findings?

Although we will never know what was going through the minds of Altamira’s artists, what is for certain is that wild boar are one of the least artistically-represented species in the European Palaeolithic together with, for example, the musk-ox, chamois, wolf and fox (Bahn and Vertut 1999: 153). This is a rather puzzling fact because although red deer and bison were prominent ingredients of Cantabrians’ ‘palaeodiets’ – and thus also likely played an important symbolic/inspirational role for these people -, wild boars were also, to a certain extent, an important component of Spain’s ancient landscapes and would have therefore been able to provide much artistic inspiration to our ancestors. Why then were they so often ignored? Unfortunately, we will probably never know, but all suggestions are most definitely welcome.

References and Further Reading

Bahn, P.G. and Vertut, J. 1999. Journey Through the Ice Age. London: Seven Dials. (£)

bisonte
Did you know there used to be a Spanish brand of cigarettes, ‘Bisonte‘ (bison in Spanish), that had one of Altamira’s paintings as its logo?

BreuiI, H. and Obermaier, H. 1935. The Cave of Altamira at Santillana del Mar, Spain. Santander: The Hispanic Society of America and the Academia de la Historia. (£) 

El País de Altamira. 2009. El misterio del jabalí en la cueva de Altamira. [online] Available at: <http://www.elpaisdealtamira.es/?p=313> [Accessed 5 March 2014].

El País de Altamira. n.d. El misterio del jabalí en la cueva de Altamira. ¿Qué ves? [online] Available at: <http://www.elpaisdealtamira.es/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/el-misterio-del-jabal%C3%AD.pdf> [Accessed 5 March 2014].

Fernández-Santos, E. 2014. Altamira caves to reopen. El País In English, [online] 20 January. Available at: <http://elpais.com/elpais/2014/01/20/inenglish/1390231176_976428.html> [Accessed 5 March 2014].

Freeman, L.G. 1987. Altamira Revisited. Chicago: Institute for Prehistoric Investigation. (£)

Freeman, L.G. 1992. Seres, signos y sueños: La interpretación del arte paleolítico. Espacio, Tiempo y Forma, Serie I, Prehistoria y Arqueología 5: 87-106. Link

Nómada. 2009. Altamira: Un viaje a lo que fuimos. Quesabesde, [online] 13 May. Available at: <http://www.quesabesde.com/noticias/nomada-altamira-museo_5259> [Accessed 5 March 2014].

Rice, P.C. 1992. The boars from Altamira: Solving and identity crisis. Papers in Archaeology 3: 23-29. Link

Saiz-Jiménez, C., Cuezva, S., Jurado, V., Fernández-Cortés, A., Porca, E., Benavente, D., Cañaveras, J.C. and Sánchez-Moral, S.  2011. Paleolithic art in peril: Policy and science collide at Altamira Cave. Science 334: 42–43. (£) Link

(£) Denotes paywall or book.

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