Maria Sanz de Sautuola

Maria Sanz de Sautuola
  • Maria Sanz de Sautuola was born in Northern Spain on November 30 1870.  She was the only child of a wealthy nobleman and his wife who owned an estate near the city of Santander.  The mountainous are where the Sanz de Sautuolas’ estate was located was known as Altamira, meaning “high view.”

    Shortly before Maria’s birth a hunting dog had discovered a cave on the Sanz de Sautuolas’ property- although it may be more accurate to say that the cave found the dog.  The animal was roaming the countryside with its master when it suddenly disappeared into a crevice in a hillside.  As the hunter rescued his barking dog he saw that the crevice was actually a cave opening that had been obscured by dirt and twigs.  The hunter told Maria’s father, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola about the cave on his property.  Marcelino had little interest at first because the mountains of northern Spain had many caves.  Not until 1875, when Maria was five years old did Marcelino clear the debris from the entrance and began to explore.

    In 1877 Mari’s father traveled to Paris, France, where he attended a convention of archeologists- scientists who study the remains of past human cultures.  The scientists were excited about some skeletons that had recently been found in the Cro-Magnon Cave in France.   The skeletons belonged to a prehistoric people who strongly resembled modern humans and who had lived in various locations in Europe, Asia and Africa from 40,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago.  These prehistoric relatives were named the Cro-Magnon, in honor of the cave in which their remains were first found.  Marcelino wondered, Might Cro-Magnon people have lived in the cave on my property thousands of years ago?

    When he returned home from Paris, Marcelino decided to dig around inside his cave.  But he found the digging to be lonely work so his wife suggested that Maria keep him company.  The lively six-year-old with short brown hair and dancing eyes was happy to help her father.  She held the candles so that he could see where to dig.  And sometimes he held the candle so that she could scoop out a little dirt with her small shovel.

    Notes made by Marcelino reveal that in the next year or so, he and his daughter dug down to a depth of 30 centimeters (12 inches).  They discovered dozens of relics that Marcelino concluded had been left by Cro-Magnon people.  These included piles of wild animal bones and teeth, which indicated that the cave dwellers had been hunters.  Father and daughter also uncovered shells from oysters and other sea creatures, proving that the cave dwellers had visited the nearby seashore as well.  In addition, Maria and her father unearthed stone tools and a few pieces of clay pottery.  Maria felt proud to be helping with such important work.  To her father, each new discovery of a scraping tool or spear point was as rewarding as finding a diamond or a gold nugget.

    Maria and her father always did their digging near the cave entrance, where the ancient people had lived.  But as the months passed, Maria grew curious about the passages at the rear of the cave, which she and her father had never entered.  She longed to ask if she could explore those passages on her own, but each time she stared into the darkness she changed her mind.

    One summer day in 1879, Maria and her father went out once again to the cave on the hillside.  As they dug in their usual spot, Maria again began to wonder about the rear of the cave.  But this time she did not allow fear to overcome her curiosity.  When Maria asked if she could go deeper into the cave by herself, her father gave her permission but warned her to be very careful.

    Taking a candle, the eight-year-old girl began walking uncertainly through the dim passage.  The strange dancing shadows cast by the candle’s flame seemed to leap out at her from the walls and ceiling.  With each step, she had to fight the urge to run back to her father.  Yet Maria continued, step by step, until finally she entered a great hall of the cave.

    For a few moments, Maria explored the huge chamber.  Then something overhead caught her eye.  She screamed, “TorosToros!” (“Bulls! Bulls!)  What she saw on the ceiling were extraordinary animal paintings.  In the flickering candlelight they appeared to be running across the ceiling, their eyes staring down at the astounded girl.

From the caves at Altamira