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However not until the anthropologist Henri Breuil (1877-1961) began circulating copies of the paintings in the mid/late 1900s, did the world at large became aware of the true visual significance of the site.For four decades thereafter Altamira was the world's leading showcase of prehistoric ancient art, until its eclipse by the Lascaux cave paintings in the late 1940s.Like many similar prehistoric caves, Altamira has been dogged by environmental and conservation problems.It was closed for conservation purposes in 1977 (reopened 1982), and again in 2002.These recent dating results are consistent with other finds in the region.In 2012, for example, a red dot and a hand print found at the El Castillo Cave - also in Cantabria - were dated to at least 39,000 BCE and 35,500 BCE respectively (Aurignacian era), making them the oldest art of their type from any cave in Europe.
Experts who read the report, notably the French scholars Gabriel de Mortillet and Emile Cartailhac, ridiculed its findings at the 1880 Prehistorical Congress in Lisbon, although eventually, in 1902, they and other scientists in the archeological establishment admitted their mistake and acknowledged the authenticity of the Altamira paintings.
Indeed, Altamira's artists are renowned for how they used the natural contours of the cave to make their animal figures seem extra-real.
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.
Other replicas can be seen in the National Archeological Museum of Spain, Madrid, and in the Deutsches Museum, Munich.
In 1985, Altamira was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In 2012, further U/Th tests found that a particular club-shaped image dated back to 34,000 BCE.