The cave of Altamira is privileged to be the first place in the world where the existence of rock art from the Upper Palaeolithic was discovered. Altamira was also a unique discovery due to the quality, the magnificent conservation and the freshness of its pigments. Its recognition was delayed for quarter of a century, at a time when its comprehension was difficult for a society, that of the 19th century, immersed in rigid scientific postulates.
The cavity was discovered by a local man, Modesto Cubillas, around 1868. Accompanied by Cubillas, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola visited the cave for the first time in 1875 and recognised some lines which at the time he did not consider to be the work of humans.
At the Universal Exhibition of Paris he discovered some pre-historic objects at first hand found in caves in the South of France. Sautuola, who already had a broad education in Natural Sciences and in History, returned to Spain with a renewed perspective and decided to undertake his own works in the caves of Cantabria. Accompanied by his daughter María he returned to Altamira in 1879. The girl was the first to see the figures on the ceiling of the cave.
In 1880 Sautuola published the find in the pamphlet Brief notes on some prehistoric objects in the Province of Santander, attributing the paintings to prehistory, to the Palaeolithic Period. Despite his lucid analysis, his contemporaries from different intellectual, evolutionist or creationist perspectives, or the incredulous prehistorians of the time, received his approach with scepticism.
Its value was not recognised until the discovery of Palaeolithic rock art in other caves in Europe, mainly in France (Le Mouthe, Combarelles and Font de Gaume). In 1902, the French prehistorian Émile de Cartailhac published Les cavernes ornées de dessins. La grotte d'Altamira, Espagne. Mea Culpa d'un sceptique. From that moment on, the cave of Altamira acquired universal recognition and became an icon of Palaeolithic rock art.
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