In 1879, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola proclaimed that he and his daughter had discovered the rock art in the Altamira Cave, Cantabria. Actually, the cave had already been discovered in 1868 by a sharecropper on Sanz de Sautuola’s estate, Modesto Cubillas, while searching for his dog. In July 2014, Antonio Banderas expressed his enthusiasm about working on a film in Spain in the near future. It was to be a movie about the discovery of the Altamira rock art. Released in 2016, Finding Altamira has an international cast, with music composed by Mark Knopfler. Banderas portrays Sanz de Sautuola himself. The director is Hugh Hudson, known for his previous works Chariots of Fire (1981), Greystoke (1984), and Revolution (1985).
The movie covers all the official points about one of the most important archeological discoveries of the nineteenth century: Sanz de Sautuola’s enthusiasm, the accidental discovery of the paintings by his daughter, the difficult relationship with his very Catholic wife, the accusation of forgery by the French prehistorian Émile Cartailhac, and the posthumous recognition by Cartailhac himself. Bandera’s character is not, however, the only central figure in the film; his daughter María shares the limelight since she is acknowledged as the first discoverer of the cave paintings. In the movie, María—portrayed by Allegra Allen—plays the typical young daughter who shares a very close bond with her father. Perhaps María’s central role in the film is not gratuitous: her grandson, Emilio Botín, owned Banco Santander, which provided Finding Altamira’s sources of funding.
Finding Altamira is another cultural product in which we can see antiquated obsessions of the scientific world translated and transmitted into the modern day. At the same time, it shows us the main political and academic concepts hold true in the past, and shines light on others that we inadvertently perpetuate. This falsely humble approach to the history of science and the patriotic epic is well-summarized at the very end of the film, with the famous quote by Pablo Picasso: “After Altamira all is decadence.”
In the first scene of the movie, Marcelino, along with Spanish geologist Juan Vilanova, is admiring a group of Africans performing in the Exposition Universelle of 1878. This opening scene is of great importance since it shows us one of the major scientific undercurrents in the developing fields of anthropology and prehistory of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: it was taken for granted that stone-age ancient peoples of Europe were very much alive in the primitive populations of Australia, Africa, and America. The indigenous Australians and the San people from Southern Africa were the star exhibits at conferences and were featured in publications about the new study of prehistory.
This well-known feature of Western science was accompanied by a closer distinction between civilized and primitives within their own societies. The primitive could be found in our very own towns and cities of Spain and France, as the Cantabrian prehistorian Jesús Carballo (1874–1961) might say. He was the author of the first prehistory handbook in Spanish, Prehistoria universal y especial de España (1924), in which he defends Sanz de Sautuola before the scientific community. The discoverer of Altamira is epitomized by Carballo as the Christopher Columbus of modern prehistory. Carballo argued in his book that primitive man could be very realistic in his paintings because he was living within pure nature and their senses were more developed, like the one who lived in today’s countryside and forest. Among the several examples he gives about lower classes’ bestial and primitive behavior or the examples of popular tradition condemning shepherds and female newspaper sellers to backwardness, there is one account of a Filipino servant able to recognize the clothes of his Catholic masters by their smell.
That use of comparative ethnology was discarded academically during the twentieth century, but it continues in the popularization of sciences such as archeology and prehistory. Finding Altamira is a good example of this zombie-like approach—an old empty concept slowly dragged until today. There is a pathetic scene when...