Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola
The Altamira cave, now famous for its unique collection of prehistoric art, was well known to local people, but had not been given much attention until in 1868, when it was "discovered" by the hunter Modesto Peres.
Sautuola then started exploring the caves in 1875. He did not become aware of the paintings, however, until 1879, when his daughter Maria, nine years old at the time, incidentally noticed that the ceiling was covered by images of bisons. Sautuola, having seen similar images engraved on Paleolithic objects displayed at the World Exposition in Paris the year before, rightly assumed that the paintings might also date from the Stone Age. He therefore engaged an archaeologist from the University of Madrid to help him in his further work.
Professor Juan Vilanova y Piera supported Sautuola's assumptions, and they published their results in 1880, to much public acclaim. But the scientific society was reluctant to accept the presumed antiquity of the paintings. The French specialists, led by their guru Gabriel de Mortillet, were particularly adamant in rejecting the hypothesis of Sautuola and Piera and their findings were loudly ridiculed at the 1880 Prehistorical Congress in Lisbon. Due to the supreme artistic quality, and the exceptional state of conservation of the paintings, Sautuola was even accused of forgery. A fellow countryman maintained that the paintings had been produced by a contemporary artist, on Sautuola's orders.
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 (and forgery less likely), that the scientific society retracted their opposition to the Spaniards. That year, the towering French archaeologist Émile Cartailhac, who had been one of the leading critics, emphatically admitted his mistake in the famous article, "Mea culpa d'un sceptique", published in the journal L'Anthropologie.
Sautuola had died 14 years earlier, and did not live to enjoy the restitution of his honour or the later scientific confirmation of his premonitions. Modern dating techniques have since confirmed that the paintings of the Altamira cave were created over extended periods between 11,000 and 19,000 years ago. For the study of Paleolithic art Sautuola's discoveries must now be considered pivotal.