Grimaldi Man

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The Grimaldi find as displayed in the Musée d'Anthropologie in Monaco

Grimaldi man was a name given in the early 20th century to an Italian find of two paleolithic skeletons. When found, the skeletons were the subject of dubious scientific theories on human evolution, partly fueled by biased reconstruction of the skulls by the scientists involved.[1] While the skeletons differ markedly from the contemporary Cro-Magnon finds from other parts of Europe, the Grimaldi find, together with various other finds of early modern humans, was classified as Cro-Magnon (in the wider sense) in the 1960s, though the term European early modern humans is today preferred for this assemblage.


Grotte dei Balzi Rossi (Rochers Rouges) where the Grimaldi skeletons were found. Picture from Nouvelle géographie universelle, 1877

In the late 19th century, several stone age finds of extreme age had been made in the caves and rock shelters around the "Balzi Rossi" (the Red Cliff) near Ventimiglia in Italy.[2] One of the more dramatic was that of two children with snail-shell belts in what was named as "Grotte dei fanciulli" (Cave of the Children) as well as stone tools and several Venus figurines.[3] Around the turn of the 20th century, Albert I, Prince of Monaco financed the archaeological exploration of the seven most important caves. These were named "Caves of Grimaldi" in honour of the House of Grimaldi.[4] The find is on display in Le Musée d'anthropologie préhistorique in Monaco.[5]

The caves yielded several finds. The remains from one of the caves, the "Barma Grande", have in recent time been radiocarbon dated to 25 000 years old, which places it in the Upper Paleolithic.[6]

Finding Grimaldi man[edit]

The Grotte dei fanciulli held Aurignacian artifacts and reindeer remains in the upper layers, while the lower layers exhibited a more tropical fauna with Merck's rhinoceros, hippopotamus and straight-tusked elephant. The lowermost horizon held Mousterian tools, associated with Neanderthals.[4] The Grimaldi skeletons were found in the lower Aurignacian layer in June 1901, by the Canon de Villeneuve. The two skeletons appeared markedly different from the Cro-Magnon skeletons found higher in the cave and in other caves around Balzi Rossi, and was named "Grimaldi man" in honour of the Prince.

One of the two skeletons belonged to a woman past 50, the other an adolescent boy of 16 or 17.[7] The skeletons were in remarkably good shape, though the weight of some 8 meters of sediments had crushed them somewhat, particularly the fine bones of the face. Yet, de Villeneuve was reportedly struck by the prognathism of the skulls.[8] With the crushed nature of the skulls, such observation would have been tentative at best. It was however later established that the old woman was indeed prognathic, though from a pathologic condition.[1]


The dating techniques of the day were limited, but the Grimaldi people were believed to be of the late Palaeolithic period.[9] An inference of the true age can be made from the layering. The more tropical fauna of the lower levels below the Grimaldi man skeletons had rhinoceros, hippopotamus and elephants, are known from the Mousterian Pluvial, a moist period from 50 000 to 30 000 years before present.[10] The Aurignacian is 47 000 to 41 000 years old using the most recent calibration of the radiocarbon timescale.[11] With the Grimaldi skeletons situated at the lowest Aurignacian layer, the true age is likely in the earlier range.

Physical characteristics[edit]

The Grimaldi skeletons were very different from the finds that had been unearthed in Europe until then. Unlike the robust Neanderthals, the Grimaldi skeletons were slender and gracile, even more so than the Cro-Magnon finds from the same cave system.[8] The Grimaldi people were small. While an adult Cro-Magnon generally stood over 170 cm tall (large males could reach 190 cm), neither of the two skeletons stood over 160 cm. The boy was smallest at a mere 155 cm.[7]

The two skulls had rather tall braincases, unlike the long, low skulls found in Neanderthals and to a lesser extent in Cro-Magnons. The faces had wide nasal openings and lacked the rectangular orbitae and broad complexion so characteristic of Cro-Magnons.[12] These traits, combined with what de Villeneuve interpreted as prognathism led the discoverers to the conclusion that the Grimaldi man had been of a "negroid" type.[8] Some traits did not fit the picture though. The nasal bone had a high nasal bridge, like that of Cro-Magnons and modern Europeans and was very unlike those of more tropical groups. The two rises of the frontal bone in the forehead were separate rather than forming a single median rise, another European trait. The cranial capacity was also quite large for their size. Brain size correlates strongly with total muscle mass in humans, indicating the two would have been well muscled in life, rather than having the slender build usually seen in tropical people.[7]

Restoration work and interpretation[edit]

1916 photo

The need for reconstruction[edit]

The skulls had been damaged by the weight of the overlying sediments, and some reconstruction, particularly of the lower face was necessary. It has been established that the old woman suffered from a phenomenon known in orthodontics. Having lost all her molars of the lower jaw, the upper jaw had been progressively translated forward and the lower part of the face had become more protruding.[13]

Reconstructing the face[edit]

The adolescent had all his teeth, but these were manipulated by the anthropologists M. Boule and R. Verneau, when trying to reconstruct the skull and the face. M. Boule drilled the maxillaries in order to release the wisdom teeth that were still inside them. By doing this, he changed the face, as the natural growth of the wisdom teeth would have remodeled the dental arc in a natural way. Having then too many teeth to fit the jawline, he reconstructed a very prognathic jaw, possibly bearing in mind the jaw of the woman. The diagnosis of "prognathism" in the adolescent is hence speculative - artificial and possibly intentionally created. Based on these characteristics, Boule and Verneau concluded that the two specimen were "negroid". Other non-negroïd characteristics were disregarded. The fact that no similar finds were known from Europe did not raise any concern, as it was believed that more were to follow.[13]

Museum display[edit]

When the Grimaldi skeletons were found, the adolescent had laid on his back and the woman face-down. The position were changed when they were prepared for display. In order to make the prognathism visible, the skeletons were laid out on their side, which also suggested a ritual burial contrary to the original positions. Photos of this display can be found in textbooks,[14] without reference to the changing of the positions, further adding to the confusion over the Grimaldi find.

It is however clear that Dr. Verneau did not intend to create a hoax along the lines of the Piltdown man.[13] He documented his manipulations (at least partially), and his intention was to accentuate a feature he really believed to be present.[1] His honesty is further corroborated[1] as he also made and published photos of the excavation, where one can see the old woman lying in a face-down position.[1] Such photos were quite rare for that time.

The Grimaldi man and political archaeology[edit]

Grimaldi man as "negroid"[edit]

The finding of the first Cro-Magnon in 1868, at the height of imperialism, led to the idea that modern man had arisen in Europe. The most chauvinistic of French archaeologists were even ready to declare France the cradle of humanity.[15] The Piltdown Man forgery "discovered" in 1912 helped the Eurocentric view by offering proof of a European "missing link" between ape and man. In spite of Boule's conclusion that Piltdown was a forgery (in 1915), scientists continued to believe in it, until modern dating methods finally exposed the fraud in 1953.

The ideas of early writers like Arthur de Gobineau made the more politically minded archaeologists of the day consider Europeans as the original (superior) race.[15] Hence, the African and Asian races had to come from somewhere. The Grimaldi finds satisfied the need for an ancestor for the "black" race, and the skull from Chancelade suggested one for the "yellow" race.[16] M. Boule and R. Verneau can thus be seen as interpreting the find after the leading theories of the day.[1] Others are less tolerant in their judgment: they suggest that the Grimaldi man and the Chancelade man are imaginations resulting from the theories of de Gobineau, to prove the superiority and anteriority of the white race.[17]

Grimaldi man as Cro-Magnon[edit]

With the end of World War II , much of the pre-war racial theories and literature was rejected, and fossil humans were grouped into broader categories. New finds from Jebel Qafzeh in Israel, Combe-Capelle in France, Minatogawa in Japan, the Kabwe skull from Zambia and several Paleo-Indians had considerably broadened the knowledge of early man.[18] All these finds group with Cro-Magnons rather than with Neanderthals, and the old term Cro-Magnon was expanded to encompass all early modern humans, including the Grimaldi.[15]

In this understanding of the term "Cro-Magnon", the Grimaldi man did not stand out. This change coincided with a shift of paleoanthropological focus away from Europe. Cro-Magnon in the wide sense is now replaced by "Anatomically modern humans" or AMH, and the name Cro-Magnon has come to denote remains similar to the original find, though not as a formal unit.[19]

Grimaldi Man as the first European within Afrocentrism[edit]

With the rise of Afrocentrism in the wake of decolonialisation of Africa, Grimaldi man has again become the subject of controversy. Cheikh Anta Diop insisted that Grimaldi man represent a distinct black race, different from the Cro-Magnon.[20]

The finding of Grimaldi man at the lowermost of the Aurignacian layers indicate they lived near the cave before Cro-Magnons settled the local area. The Afrocentrist theory of the origin of Europeans vary somewhat from author to author, but the essence is that "white man" only appeared around 20 000 years ago, with a "black" Grimaldi man as ancestor. We now know the Cro-Magnons settled Europe from the East, Italy and South France being among the last areas to be settled.[21] With the estimated age of the find, this means the Grimaldi people would have been contemporary with rather than preceding the Cro-Magnon immigration wave in Europe, though the Grimaldi man may well have been the earliest modern inhabitants of the Ligurian coast.

With the current genetic mapping of the worlds population history, the origins of Europeans from a common Caucasian/Mongolian group is dated to some 50 000 in Central Asia, and all humans share an origin in East Africa some 150,000 year ago.[22] The genetic mapping of a Mesolithic era skeleton found at the La Braña-Arintero site in León, Spain dated to approximately 7,000 years ago shows the individual carried the pigmentation genes of ancestral alleles. This suggests the lower melanin levels in skin of modern Europeans was not yet found everywhere in Europe during the Mesolithic era.[23] The individual has African versions of genes which determine skin pigmentation. He also has genes which produce blue eyes.[24]

Other explanations[edit]

Not all early 20th century archaeologists shared the view of Grimaldi as ancestors of Africans. Sir Arthur Keith pointed out that while the Grimaldi man clearly showed "negroid" features, he also had European ones. He concluded that Grimaldi man probably was of an "intermediate race", like those alive today that do not readily fall into the racial stereotypes of Europeans, Africans or Asians.[7] He suggested Grimaldi man might have found his way to Europe over a land bridge from Africa. Both the Strait of Gibraltar and a route from Algeria via Sicily was thought to have been fordable in the late Paleolithic.[4] Later works have shown none of them were passable at the time, though the Bosphorus strait would have been dry.[25] Others have suggested the Grimaldi people may have been related to Bushmen.[4]

Modern knowledge of the genetic history of Europe demonstrates that the European continent has been populated in several waves of ethnic groups.[26] It is well within the realm of the possible that this also happened in the early phase of modern human settlement of Europe, and that the earliest population history of Europe may be more complex than traditionally assumed from palaeontology alone.

References in literature[edit]

No new discoveries of this type have been made, though some have been reported (without substance or reference): reportedly Mikhail Gerasimov identified other skeletons as Grimaldi.[20] The Grimaldi Man still lives as a footnote in literature, mired in early racist theories and branded as a hoax, possibly because of its relative obscurity, or because most references are in French.[17]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Masset, C. (1989): Grimaldi : une imposture honnête et toujours jeune, Bulletin de la Société préhistorique française, vol. 86, n° 8, pp. 228-243.
  2. ^ Bisson, M.S. & Bolduc, P. (1994): Previously Undescribed Figurines From the Grimaldi Caves. Current Anthropology no 35(4), pages 458-468.
  3. ^ Émile Rivière (1887): Paléoethnologie : De l'Antiquité de L'Homme dans les Alpes-Maritimes, Paris: J.B. Baillère
  4. ^ a b c d Bishop, C.W., Abbot, C.G. & Hrdlicka, A. (1930): Man from the Farthest Past, Volume VII from the Smithsonian Institution Series. original text from American Libraries
  5. ^ "La plus riche collection des Grottes des Balzi Rossi". Le Musée d'anthropologie préhistorique. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  6. ^ Bisson, M.S., Tisnerat, N., & Whit, R. (1996): Radiocarbon Dates From the Upper Paleolithic of the Barma Grande. Current Anthropology no 37(1), pages 156- 162.
  7. ^ a b c d Keith, A. (1911): Ancient Types of Man. Harper and Brothers Read book online, (Grimaldi man covered on pages 58-63)
  8. ^ a b c Verneau, R. (1909): Les fouilles du Prince de Monaco aux Baoussé Roussé. Un nouveau type humain. L'anthropologie no 13, pages 561-585
  9. ^ Wells, H.G. (1920). "The Later Postglacial Palæolithic Men, the First True Men". The Outline of History, Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind. pp. 65–76. But at the Grimaldi cave, near Mentone, were discovered two skeletons also af the later Palaeolithic Period, ... 
  10. ^ Stewart, J.T. (1 May 2007). "Neanderthal extinction as part of the faunal change in Europe during Oxygen Isotope Stage 3". Acta Zoologica Cracoviensia. A. 50 (1): 93–124. doi:10.3409/000000007783995372. Retrieved 24 April 2013. 
  11. ^ P.Mellars, Archeology and the Dispersal of Modern Humans in Europe: Deconstructing the Aurignacian, Evolutionary Anthropology, vol. 15 (2006), pp. 167–182.
  12. ^ Human Evolution: Interpreting Evidence Cro-Magnon 1 Archived 2011-09-27 at the Wayback Machine., from Museum of Science
  13. ^ a b c Legoux, P. (1966): Détermination de l'âge dentaire de fossiles de la lignée humaine, Paris, Maloine
  14. ^ Henry Fairfield Osborn (1916): Men of the old stone age, their environment, life and art, New York : C. Scribner's sons
  15. ^ a b c Prediaux, T. (1974): Cro-Magnon Man, book III in the series The Emergence of Man, Time–Life
  16. ^ Leo Testut, in Recherches anthropologiques sur le Squelette quaternaire de Chancelade, Bull. Soc. d'Anthrop. de Lyon, 1889, had devoted 50 pages to the proof that the Chancelade skull was an ancestor of the Eskimo. In spite of the lengthy argumentation, the Chancelade skeleton is now considered Cro-Magnon.
  17. ^ a b Marianne Cornevin, M. & Leclant, J. (1981): Secrets du continent noir révélés par l'archéologie, Maisonneuve et Larose, Paris, p. 40. ISBN 2-7068-1251-6
  18. ^ Brace, C. Loring (1996). Haeussler, Alice M.; Bailey, Shara E., eds. "Cro-Magnon and Qafzeh — vive la Difference" (PDF). Dental anthropology newsletter: a publication of the Dental Anthropology Association. Tempe, Arizona: Laboratory of Dental Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, Arizona State University. 10 (3): 2–9. ISSN 1096-9411. OCLC 34148636. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 June 2010. Retrieved 31 March 2010. 
  19. ^ Trinkaus, Erik (April 2004). Schekman, Randy, ed. "European early modern humans and the fate of the Neandertals" (pdf+html). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Washington, D.C.: The Academy,. 104 (18): 7367–7372. Bibcode:2007PNAS..104.7367T. doi:10.1073/pnas.0702214104. ISSN 0027-8424. OCLC 1607201. PMC 1863481Freely accessible. PMID 17452632. Retrieved 31 March 2010. 
  20. ^ a b Cheikh Anta Diop, Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology (1981)
  21. ^ Kozlowski, J.K.; Otte, M. (2000). "The Formation of the Aurignacian in Europe". Journal of Anthropological Research. 56 (4): 513–534. JSTOR 3630929. 
  22. ^ "Atlas of human journey: 45 - 40,000", The genographic project, National Geographic Society, 1996–2010, archived from the original on 5 February 2011, retrieved 31 March 2010 
  23. ^ Olalde, Iñigo; Allentoft, Morten E.; Sánchez-Quinto, Federico; Santpere, Gabriel; Chiang, Charleston W. K.; DeGiorgio, Michael; Prado-Martinez, Javier; Rodríguez, Juan Antonio; Rasmussen, Simon; Quilez, Javier; Ramírez, Oscar; Marigorta, Urko M.; Fernández-Callejo, Marcos; Prada, María Encina; Encinas, Julio Manuel Vidal; Nielsen, Rasmus; Netea, Mihai G.; Novembre, John; Sturm, Richard A.; Sabeti, Pardis; Marquès-Bonet, Tomàs; Navarro, Arcadi; Willerslev, Eske; Lalueza-Fox, Carles (13 March 2014). "Derived immune and ancestral pigmentation alleles in a 7,000-year-old Mesolithic European". Nature. 507 (7491): 225–228. doi:10.1038/nature12960. ISSN 0028-0836. Retrieved 17 April 2017. 
  24. ^ "Spanish hunter-gatherer had blue eyes and dark skin". Retrieved 17 April 2017. 
  25. ^ Cloud, P., Oasis in space. Earth history from the beginning, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., p. 440. ISBN 0-393-01952-7
  26. ^ Sykes, B. (2001): The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry, W.W. Norton, 306 pages, ISBN 0-393-02018-5