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But the main discovery was an eighth level, previously undetected, dating back to the Gravettian era of about 20,000 BCE.Then, in 2008, British scientists dated the paintings using the Uranium/Thorium (U/Th) method.About 12,000 BCE, a landslide sealed the cave's entrance, thus preserving its contents until its accidental discovery in the late 19th century.

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For details about how the cave murals of Altamira fit into the evolution of Stone Age culture, see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.

For a comparison with early African painting, please see the animal images on the Apollo 11 Cave Stones (c.25,500 BCE).

The actual subterranean complex itself consists of a 270-metre long series of twisting passages ranging from 2-6 metres (about 7-20 feet) in height, in which more than 100 animal figures are depicted.

Unlike most other decorated rock shelters of the Upper Paleolithic, Altamira cave was a place of domestic human habitation This was limited to the cave mouth and lobby area, although paintings and petroglyphs were created throughout the length of the cave.

The cave was first discovered in 1868 by Modesto Peres, a local hunter searching for his dog, but it wasn't until 1879 that the murals on the ceiling of the cave were spotted by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola a local nobleman and amateur archeologist, when excavating the cave floor for artifacts.

Sautuola examined the cave further along with Juan Vilanova y Piera, an archeologist from the University of Madrid, and the pair published a report (1880) stating that the cave's wall paintings and engravings belonged to the Palelithic era of prehistory.

It was closed for conservation purposes in 1977 (reopened 1982), and again in 2002.

Today, the cave is only accessible to scientists and a handful of visitors chosen by lottery.

It is one of seventeen such caves unearthed along the mountains of North Spain near the Atlantic coast, on the main migratory route from the Middle East, which followed the North African coast, crossed the sea at Gibraltar and led through Spain into France.

Other important Cantabrian sites of Ice Age cave art include the El Castillo Cave (c.39,000 BCE), and the Pasiega Cave (c.16,000 BCE), as well as La Pileta Cave (18,000 BCE) (Malaga) and Tito Bustillo Cave (14,000 BCE) (Asturias).

The passages are floodlit with well-laid concrete paths, the usual walking or outdoor clothing will suffice and there are no steps so the Cave is accessible for pushchairs.

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