The Paleolithic Tool Kits of Altamira Land

Altamira: 150 Years of Discovery

The cave of Altamira holds the privileged status of being the first place where Upper Paleolithic cave paintings were found.

The cave was discovered in 1868 and was first visited by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola in 1875. He collected various objects from the cave's surface, finding the paintings in 1879 and attributing them to the Paleolithic period in 1880.

In addition to its renowned paintings, the cave of Altamira boasts a significant archaeological site inside and outside its entrance chamber.

It contains evidence of human presence over a long period, from approximately 22,000 years ago up to the collapse of mouth of the cave around 13,000 years ago. The recent dating of a red symbol painted on the Polychrome Ceiling has extended this period to as far back as around 36,000 years ago.

There have also been finds dating from the Lower and Middle Paleolithic periods in the area surrounding Altamira.

The National Museum and Research Center of Altamira is dedicated to the management and conservation of, and research and education relating to, both the cave of Altamira and its important collections, which comprise finds from this cave and other Cantabrian sites including the archaeological site Surroundings of Altamira and the caves of Morín, Chufín, La Pila, Rascaño, and El Juyo.

This exhibition aims to showcase some of the most significant finds relating to the everyday lives of the inhabitants of Altamira.

Its launch also coincides with the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the cave of Altamira, providing an opportunity to exhibit some of the main objects found in the cave by its discoverer, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola.

Homo Heidelbergensis
Between 500,000 and 200,000 BC, Europe was mainly inhabited by Homo heidelbergensis. These individuals had a cranial capacity that was slightly smaller than ours, and their anatomy was somewhat different. They were similar in height to modern-day humans, but were more robustly built. Their foreheads had a prominent supraorbital ridge and they had strong jaws.

Homo heidelbergensis were the main inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula throughout the Lower Paleolithic period, a period that experienced temperate and warm climatic phases. This meant that they were surrounded by vegetation that was similar to that of the present day, with a predominance of Mediterranean forests as well as large mammal species such as elephants, rhinos, hippos, lions, horses, and deer.

We can therefore say that these were the first inhabitants of the Cantabrian Corniche, and were responsible for the oldest archaeological sites found in Altamira Land, with evidence of their presence also found in the areas surrounding the cave.

The First European Tools

Homo heidelbergensis developed the material culture known as Acheulean—a small number of different types of industries of multifunctional stone-tool manufacture.

Their tool kit comprised a small variety of stone tools that were used for various tasks. Those that tend to be found regularly in archaeological sites include large cleavers and bifaces with one or more edges having been worked to create sharp edges for cutting or scraping.

Chopper made from a sandstone core, found in the archaeological site Surroundings of Altamira, dating from the Lower Paleolithic period. It is a very functional tool that was used for cutting, striking and breaking.

Amygdaloid biface made from a quartzite core, from the archaeological site Surroundings of Altamira, from the Lower Paleolithic period. It is a multifunctional tool used for cutting, striking, or scraping any surface.

Quartzite cleaver from the archaeological site Surroundings of Altamira, from the Lower Paleolithic period. It has a sharp edge at one end that means it can cut or break different materials.

Quartzite scraper from the archaeological site Surroundings of Altamira, dating from the Lower Paleolithic period. It was used for working hide and vegetable materials.

Neanderthals
Between 200,000 and 28,000 BC, Europe and the Near East were inhabited by Neanderthals. These people had an anatomy that was similar to ours, but with a more elongated skull, a greater cranial capacity, a less prominent forehead with a marked supraorbital ridge, and a small, almost non-existent chin. They were slightly shorter than we are and more robustly built, with a well developed musculature.

They lived during the Middle Paleolithic period, during the final ice ages which led to a lowering in average temperatures as well as an increase in the number of animal species that were native to the Paleolithic tundra and taiga, such as mammoths, reindeer, Eurasian wild horses, and woolly rhinos.

The optimal conditions of the Iberian Peninsula, due to its southern location and, in particular, its stability as a reservoir for the biosphere of the Cantabrian corniche, have meant that a large number of Neanderthal sites have been found in Altamira Land.

Sites inhabited by Neanderthals have been found in caves and shelters as well as out in the open. These groups of humans enjoyed a considerable degree of social organization, since they had articulated speech, took care of their sick and elderly, and buried their dead.

The Specialism of Stone Knapping

Neanderthals' intelligence and large cranial capacity meant that they were able to make tools from stone and bone, which were clearly fashioned with a great deal of planning and skill.

It was in this way that the Neanderthals developed Mousterian industry. This included important innovations such as the Levallois stone-knapping technique, which meant that their tool kit—while still maintaining some of the multi-purpose tools of their predecessors, such as racloirs—was now moving towards the specialist instruments of their successors, with the emergence of morphologically specialized tools for specific activities, such as denticulate tools and points.

The Levallois stone-knapping technique consisted of using a pre-constructed core to create tools in predetermined shapes. This video shows a racloir and a notched tool being made, and a wooden handle being prepared to be hafted to a Mousterian Levallois point.

Laminar Mousterian flint point, made using the Levallois technique typical of the Middle Paleolithic period. They were mainly used for piercing and cutting, and would have been hafted onto a wooden handle.

Worked bone from cave of Morín, dating from the Middle Paleolithic period, with a denticulated edge. This retouching turns the object into a tool that is similar to those made from flint, which can be used for cutting or sawing soft materials.

Scraper made from a large flint flake. It is typical of the Mousterian industry of the Middle Paleolithic period. It was used for working hide, meat, and vegetable materials.

Homo Sapiens
Around 40,000 BC the first anatomically modern humans—Homo sapiens—arrived on the Iberian Peninsula, living alongside the Neanderthals for just over 12,000 years, and eventually becoming the last living representatives of the human species. Anatomically slender with a large cranial capacity, they had complex social organization and articulate speech, buried their dead, and expressed themselves artistically, both through portable and rock art.

During this period the cool, humid climate became milder, following the Last Glacial Maximum 18,000 years ago, until it reached current temperature levels. At first, these groups of humans lived alongside bison and mountain goats, which have now disappeared from the Cantabrian region. The vegetation was characterized by a predominance of open spaces and meadows, while pine, birch, oak, and hazel forests were scarce.

Sites that they inhabited during the Upper Paleolithic period have been found in caves and shelters as well as out in the open, across all five continents.

These groups of humans inhabited the cave of Altamira and were responsible for the cave paintings found there. They also inhabited several other archaeological sites in Altamira Land.

The Diversification of Tools

Homo sapiens developed various cultures throughout the Upper Paleolithic period, which were responsible for shaping the different stone and bone tool kits of the Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean, and Magdalenian cultures, with characteristic tools such as Solutrean points, scrapers, burins, spears, harpoons, and pendants, among others.

In the Upper Paleolithic period, stone-knapping techniques and the bases and materials used for making specialized tools for different activities became more diverse. This saw the creation of stone tools such as burins and points, and bone tools such as harpoons and spears.

Compressor made from schist from the cave of Altamira, found by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola during his visits made between 1875 and 1880. Dating from the Upper Paleolithic period, it was used to retouch tools using techniques of pressure flaking or striking.

The ability to refine tools in this way meant that humans had several different tools. It led to the appearance of objects relating to hunting and fishing, such as harpoons and spears, and to the processing of animal carcasses, such as knives.

Laminar Solutrean point in the shape of a willow leaf, made from flint. From the cave of Altamira, dating from the Upper Paleolithic period. It would have been used for piercing and cutting, and hafted onto a wooden handle.

Spear made from deer antler from the cave of Altamira, dating from the Upper Paleolithic period. Smoothed and intended to be hafted, it would have been used for hunting.

Harpoon made from deer antler, with a row of 5 teeth and Cantabrian-type perforation. From the cave of La Pila, dating from the Upper Paleolithic period, it would have been used for hunting and fishing.

The production of tools such as perforators, awls, and needles points to a more refined working of hides which, together with the appearance of pendants, suggests the existence of a greater repertoire of clothing during the Upper Paleolithic period.

Quartzite perforator in the shape of a parrot beak. From the cave of Chufín, dating from the Upper Paleolithic period. It would have been used for perforating different materials.

Bone awl made from an ulna, from the cave of Altamira, dating from the Upper Paleolithic period. It would have been used for piercing soft materials such as hide.

Bone needle pierced with an eye at one end, from the cave of El Juyo, dating from the Upper Paleolithic period. It was used for working hides to be turned into material.

Pendant made from the hyoid bone of a horse, from the cave of Altamira, dating from the Upper Paleolithic period. It has a perforation at one end which suggests it was used as a pendant.

Tools such as burins, scrapers, and spatulas are closely associated with scraping on bone or antler, on soft materials such as hide or wood, and on rock bases such as in the creation of cave paintings.

Flint burin from the cave of Altamira, dating from the Upper Paleolithic period. It was used for abrading, scraping, and engraving hard or semi-hard materials such as bone, antler, wood, and rock.

Laminar flint scraper from the cave of Altamira, dating from the Upper Paleolithic period. It was used for scraping and abrading soft materials such as hide, and harder materials such as wood and antler.

Deer-antler spatula from the cave of Altamira, dating from the Upper Paleolithic period. Its exact use is not known but it would have been used on flexible materials such as hide.

Museo de Prehistoria y Arqueología de Cantabria.

Museo Nacional y Centro de Investigación de Altamira
Credits: Story

Organizer: Museo de Altamira
Coordinator: Pilar Fatás, Director of the Museo de Altamira
Producers: Lucía M. Díaz and Déborah Ordás, Research Department, Museo de Altamira
Texts: Pilar Fatás, Lucía M. Díaz, and Déborah Ordás
Photography: © MNCIA—Verónica Schulmeister, Alfredo Prada, Miguel Ángel Otero, Pedro Saura, and David Rodríguez
Drawings: © MNCIA—Mauricio Antón
Videos: © MNCIA

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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