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The main passage varies from two to six meters in height.The cave was formed through collapses following early Karst phenomena in the calcareous rock of Mount Vispieres.In the millennia between these two occupations, the cave was evidently inhabited only by wild animals.Human occupants of the site were well-positioned to take advantage of the rich wildlife that grazed in the valleys of the surrounding mountains as well as the marine life available in nearby coastal areas.It was not until 1902, when several other findings of prehistoric paintings had served to render the hypothesis of the extreme antiquity of the Altamira paintings less offensive, that the scientific society retracted their opposition to the Spaniards.That year, Emile Cartailhac emphatically admitted his mistake in the famous article, "Mea culpa d'un sceptique", published in the journal L'Anthropologie.After green mold began to appear on some paintings in 2002, the caves were closed to public access.A replica cave and museum were built nearby and completed in 2001 by Manuel Franquelo and Sven Nebel, reproducing the cave and its art.

Very few visitors were allowed in per day, resulting in a three-year waiting list.Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain Paleolithic art, but none is as complex or well-populated as Altamira.The cave was excavated by Sautuola and archaeologist Juan Vilanova y Piera from the University of Madrid, resulting in a much acclaimed publication in 1880 which interpreted the paintings as Paleolithic in origin.Sautuola, having died 14 years earlier, did not live to enjoy his rehabilitation.Further excavation work on the cave was done by Hermilio Alcalde del Río between 1902–04, the German Hugo Obermaier between 1924–25 and finally by Joaquín González Echegaray in 1968.

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