Friday, June 11, 2010

Portal to the Past

Earlier this week, Spain’s Culture Ministry announced that Altamira Cave would be reopened after being closed to the public for eight years.

I went to Spain last year – specifically to see Altamira Cave. According to the National Geographic Genographic Project, my female ancestor lived in its vicinity 12,000 years ago. According to Brian Sykes in his book, The Seven Daughters of Eve, she may even have helped to paint what many call the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art.

The cave was closed. But there is, adjacent to a wondrous museum of life in those times, a painstakingly exact replica into which you can walk and look around with wonder.

Many of the Paleolithic caves of northern Spain are open to the public. I was able to visit three: Tito Bustillo, El Castillo, and Monedas. And I can testify that walking through a reproduction cannot compare with actually being deep inside the earth, viewing incredible art created thousands and thousands of years ago.


Earlier this year, Spain’s main scientific research body recommended that the caves remain closed. "The people who go in the cave have the bad habits of moving, breathing and perspiring." When tourists flocked to see the cave, green mold stains showed up on the paintings and there was a gradual deterioration of the images.

So if they let everyone see the paintings, there will eventually be nothing to see.

It’s a hard decision.

Just being in Altamira’s vicinity -- learning about its inhabitants and walking the land -- was inspiration. It was so easy to imagine my female ancestor that I made her a character, Mirari, in my “genealogical memoir,” Family Time.

In my manuscript, she described the ceremonies and significance of Altamira and other sites that (I imagined) were sacred to her people. Her audience included the female ancestors I had known growing up: two great grandmothers, three great aunts, two grandmothers and my mom. Until we listened to Mirari, none of us thought ancient people were intelligent and creative. We learned that they were a vibrant people who, if we would only pay attention, could teach us much about honoring all life.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter what is decided about the cave. As long as Altamira, in whatever form, can jostle our consciousness into a deeper understanding of existence.

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