Restricted public access to the magnificent cave paintings at Altamira, Northern Spain, has briefly resumed with a handful of lucky enthusiasts being given a full eight minutes to admire the depictions of bison, deer and human hands. Discovered in 1876, and dating back some 22,000 years, it is remarkable that the paintings have survived.
The restricted public access over the past few decades results from the carbon dioxide contamination caused to the paintings by human breath. Entrance is now only granted to the visitor if they are attired in a protective suit.
That some archaeological evidence suggests that Neanderthals went extinct only 24,500 years ago, the importance of the Altamira cave paintings becomes abundantly clear. Prehistoric evidence is normally the preserve of archaeologists, so to have a visual representation of early human life is astonishingly rare.
It is understandable, therefore, why the cave is being so carefully guarded. After all, the paintings may still hold clues of prehistoric human society.
That said, the potency of history comes in part from human interaction with source material. Very few people can expect to visit Altamira in their lifetime, and the prohibition of photography in the cave is a barrier to personal reflection. Replicas and museums serve a great educational purpose yet their impact on the individual is necessarily diluted.
Science must catch-up with history if the paintings are to be preserved for future generations. Jean M. Auel has done a good job of visualising the lives of the Cro-Magnon people in her Earth’s Children series. Much of her work was inspired by visiting the preserved sites of prehistory.
That is why we must look after our (pre-) historical heritage; to inspire the future. One day, no doubt, we will have the ability to do so at ease.