Preserving the Past to Inspire the Future: the Cave of Altamira

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.

Bison at Altamira: the creature has long-since disappeared from Spain
Bison at Altamira: the creature has long-since disappeared from Spain

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.

Paintings at Altamira include human hands
Paintings at Altamira include human hands

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.


Chavez no Bolivar but Maduro no Chavez: Venezuela crisis intensifies

Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuelan leader, liked to think of himself as a modern-day Simon Bolivar. Proclaiming his social and economic reforms the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, Chavez reveled in his populist image as a fighter against Western imperialism and elitism, a stance almost as heroic as Bolivar’s 19th century republicanism in opposition to the Spanish Crown.

Chavez sitting before a portrait of his hero, Simon Bolivar
Chavez sitting before a portrait of his hero, Simon Bolivar

That Chavez could make a creditable comparison between himself and the independence genius of South America was a result of his personal charisma, state-sponsored propaganda and populist policies, such as insanely low fuel prices. Only towards the end of his rule did the obvious economic damage of his ‘revolution’ become apparent to the majority. With one of the highest murder rates in the world, declining food security and political stagnation, Venezuela is becoming a failed state. Only Chavez’s ability to command the good faith of the people prevented a government overthrow.

His successor Nicolas Maduro, however, does not share his popular appeal. Indeed, the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV), rather than being seen as the protector of the common man, is now identified as his chief problem. Violent protests have pockmarked the streets of Caracas and other cities, leading to complaints from regional governors about police brutality and government incompetence. 

Protesters have filled the streets of Caracas
Protesters have filled the streets of Caracas

Whilst Chavez was no Bolivar, people miss his ability to command a degree of order, his belligerence against American interference in the affairs of Latin America and his sweeping gestures of support for the people.

Maduro has the potential to reverse the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ of his mentor and precipitate intervention from a foreign power that would undermine the independence and sovereign integrity that Simon Bolivar won for Venezuela with such ruthless determination. It is his choice whether to precipitate further bloodshed.

Under the Kremlin’s Watchful Eye: can Ukraine follow Estonia’s break from Russia?


In September 1939, Estonia and the USSR signed a Mutual Assistance Pact based on:

Recognition of the independence of state and non-interference in internal affairs of either party; recognising that the peace treaty of February 2nd 1920 and the treaty of non-aggression and the peaceful settlement of conflicts (dated May 4th, 1932) continue to constitute firm basis of their mutual relations and obligations. (FO 371/23689)

The Pact would not ‘in any way infringe sovereign powers of the [the] contracting parties’.

By June 1940, Soviet troops had invaded Estonia. Using a clause in the Mutual Assistance Pact – which allowed for Soviet aerodromes and naval bases in Estonian territory – as a pretext for a military blockade of the independent state, Stalin easily made one of several successful territorial acquisitions at the beginning of WWII.

Although German forces ousted their Soviet foe from Estonia in 1941, embarking on their own three-year occupation, by the end of the war the Estonia Soviet Socialist Republic (ESSR) had been reestablished. It would remain in place until 1991.

The illegal incorporation of Estonia into the USSR was accompanied by an intensive programme of Russification
The illegal incorporation of Estonia into the USSR was accompanied by an intensive programme of Russification

Estonia had been independent during the inter-war years, boasting a population with Germanic, Nordic and Russian influences. Ukraine, meanwhile, having declared a short-lived People’s Republic in 1917, was by 1921 a state within the Soviet Union.

Having also been occupied by both Soviet and German troops during WWII, Ukraine was in a similarly-weak position to Estonia when it was re-incorporated into the Soviet sphere in 1944.

Ukraine was the scene of fierce fighting during WWII
Ukraine was the scene of fierce fighting during WWII

Whereas Estonia had cultural, linguistic and geographical ties with Baltic Europe and Scandinavia, Ukraine had for several centuries been subjected to strong Russian influence. This influence, as this year’s protests attest to, has been hard to shake off.

The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych and the establishment of a pro-European interim government in Kiev has led to accusations from the Kremlin of an ‘armed mutiny’ backed by the West. Commentators fear a split between Ukraine’s pro-European and pro-Russian segments of the population that could lead to a fracturing of the state.

In February 1958, Estonian exiles in London celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of their state, which they refused to accept was a legitimate component of the Soviet Union. One point was made particularly clear:

The Republic of Estonia was invaded by the USSR in June 1940…To this day the Estonian people are kept in bondage by the Soviets and prevented from exercising their basic rights as an independent and sovereign nation. (FO 371/134617)

Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia has turned abruptly away from its troubled Russian past, joining both the EU and NATO and making itself a popular business and tourist location for Westerners.

Ukraine, meanwhile, has retained a degree of the Russian ‘bondage’ that the Estonians bemoaned in 1958.

With an economy heavily dependent on Russian patronage and energy imports, a large demographic minority of ethnic Russians and extensive land borders with Russian territory, it will take more than the ousting of a Kremlin stooge for Ukraine’s sovereign integrity to finally be resurrected.

National Archive Sources

FO 371/23689 – ‘Soviet Relations with Baltic States’ (1939)

FO 371/134617 – ‘Non-Recognition by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia of Annexation to Soviet Union’ (1958)

Other Sources

For more information of Estonia-Soviet Relations see: Davies N, Vanished Kingdoms: the History of Half-Forgotten Europe (2011)