Tech UPTechnologyWhat happened to the Altamira bison?

What happened to the Altamira bison?

The discovery of the painted bison in the Altamira cave, the so-called Paleolithic Sistine Chapel , meant a change in the concept we had of prehistoric man. The caveman with mace in hand, who barely covered his shame and was as brutal as the megafauna that surrounded him, we suddenly imagine him stopping to observe life and painting it with exquisite realism and aesthetic taste. Those bison are a symbol of our past , a scientific proof, a historical source and one of the first works of art of humanity. But if you are currently walking through the north of the Iberian Peninsula, we do not believe that you will be able to find any bison in the entire Cantabrian coast. What happened to these animals?

Look, dad, oxen!

In 1868, Modesto Cubillas was hunting in a meadow a couple of kilometers from Santillana del Mar (Cantabria). His dog was trapped between some rocks and, when Modesto went to rescue him, he discovered the entrance to a cave. The finding did not arouse much interest, since the area is full of caves and this was taken as one more. But Modesto told the news to Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola , a wealthy fan of paleontology. Marcelino, a decade later (the good man would be busy), decided to go and inspect the cave. In one of his raids he took his five-year-old daughter María. Marcelino was looking for ancient bones and stones. While he was striving for this goal, Maria entered the cave, entering a side room. In the vault that covered that part of the cave, Maria saw the paintings and ran to tell her father.

Marcelino was in charge of publishing the fascinating finding, arguing that they were prehistoric paintings. But the expert community in prehistory and paleontology refused to accept as true what Marcelino had. They branded him a fraud and the mentalities of the time could not believe that art, an element of civilization, could be developed by savages from the past . The debate was long and intense, but the perspectives (and the very development of the study of prehistory) changed as similar paintings were discovered in other parts of Europe, especially in France, the homeland of the greatest experts of the time. At the beginning of the 20th century, the paintings were recognized worldwide as Paleolithic works and the scientific debate began to dedicate its efforts to specify the chronology of the passage of humans through the cave, the techniques used to make the paintings and the purpose of the same.

Among the pictorial representations that appear on the walls of European caves, the fauna is striking. The paintings are realistic, we don’t see imagined beings like dragons or identifiable things. They are clearly hunting scenes , and they just painted what they saw in their reality. A reality that seems remote to us, since the bison that our ancestors painted do not exist in the area today. What happened to them?

more discussions

Yes, that is what the study of the past plagued with uncertainties has: it generates debate for everything. Even more so if we are facing a dramatic and mysterious story of the largest European mammal.

Since 2010, there have been places in Spain such as the one in San Cebrián de Mudá , in Palencia, that are trying to recover the Altamira bison . The animals, rescued from just a dozen individuals left alive in eastern Europe, live in captivity. But the objective of these projects is to repopulate the area in a wild way.

Where is the problem? Well, according to scientists and paleontologists, the species painted in European rock art, as in the case of Altamira, is the steppe bison ( Bison priscus ) , not the current European bison ( Bison bonasus ) , which is the one is trying to rescue from the near extinction they went through. The size, the hump, the mane and the antlers differentiate the bison that remains among us from the one that our ancestors hunted. Fossils of the Bison priscus are found relatively frequently in the north of the Iberian Peninsula, related to other species such as the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros. All of these life forms are characteristic of open, cold, arid spaces, such as the steppes . It must be taken into account that the low temperatures caused the sea level to drop, so the Cantabrian coast was wider, flatter and colder than the current one.

The prehistoric bison was adapted to the cold and, therefore, left southern Europe and headed north and east of the continent to the rhythm of the last glaciation of our planet. The Altamira bison disappeared from Spain 12,000 years ago and became extinct about 5,400 years ago.

The debate becomes even more evident when scientific advances have made it possible to collect samples and analyze DNA remains. The results raise important questions about the possible hybridization and origin of prehistoric and current bison.


Soubrier, J. et al. 2016. Early cave art and ancient DNA record the origin of European bison. Nature Communications 7, 13158. DOI: 10.1038/ncomms13158.
Verkaar, E. L. C. et al. 2004. Maternal and Paternal Lineages in Cross-Breeding Bovine Species. Has Wisent a Hybrid Origin? Molecular Biology and Evolution 21, 7, 1165-1170. DOI: 10.1093/molbev/msh064.

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