Just over two years ago Prince Albert II of Monaco visited the northern Spanish region of Cantabria. Whereas Albert II is accustomed to travelling abroad to represent his small principality at diplomatic events, sporting competitions and the like, the reason behind this trip was a very different and special one to him.
Although we now know the important role played by Cantabria for our species during the Palaeolithic, this awareness was not always so. When caves containing prehistoric art were first discovered in the region in the late nineteenth century -including Altamira– their antiquity was initially doubted by many because it was thought that such refined artistic creation could have not been the product of our ‘primitive’ ancestors’ imagination (to read more about this check out this great post by EvoAnth). For many others, however, these findings represented a unique opportunity to begin to understand our species’ past and the origins and development of our outstanding creativity.
One person who was greatly influenced by these discoveries was Albert I of Monaco (1848-1922), Albert II’s great-great grandfather. Inspired by these discoveries, Albert I decided to take on the role of patron and funded the publication in Monaco of a number of monographs on prehistoric Franco-Cantabrian art by several key prehistoric researchers of the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries including Henri Breuil (1877-1961), Hugo Obermaier (1877-1946) and Hermilio Alcalde del Río (1866-1947).
In 1908 Albert I further contributed to deepening our understanding of European prehistory by funding the excavation of several ‘key’ cave sites in Cantabria including Altamira, Covalanas and El Castillo. In the summer of 1909 Albert visited several of these excavations, and was so impressed by the new discoveries that, as a result, he went on to further support the study of our human past through the foundation of the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine de Paris in 1910, which was to be first directed by Henri Breuil and Hugo Obermaier, and which continues to produce high-quality palaeoanthropological research today.
Before his death in 1922, Albert I returned to El Castillo for a second time. At the end of his tour of the cave he wrote in the visitors’ book: «One of Spain’s glories will forever be to have contributed, in such a brilliant way, to establishing the true history of humanity». I think it would be fair to add that we also owe this contribution to him. Merci, Albert.
Did you know the Grimaldi Caves (also known as Balzi Rossi) in Italy were named after Monaco’s House of Grimaldi because Albert I funded the excavation of seven of them in the early 1900s? The excavations yielded two human burials from the Late Palaeolithic.