The cave of Altamira was discovered by Modesto Cubillas towards 1868, who subsequently informed Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who first visited the cave in 1875. Three years later, he attended the Worlds Fair held in Paris where he saw firsthand some of the prehistoric objects discovered in the caves in the south of France, where excavation work in search of humankinds most distant origins had been under way for some years. Sautuola, who already had an extensive education in the natural sciences and history, returned to Spain with a fresh perspective and decided to start his own work on the caves in Cantabria. He returned to Altamira, accompanied by his daughter, María, making her the first to see the famous polychrome paintings.
In 1880, the discovery was published in a pamphlet entitled Brief notes on certain prehistoric objects in the province of Santander, attributing the paintings to the Prehistoric period, specifically to the Palaeolithic age. In spite of his lucid analysis, Sautuolas contemporaries, coming from a variety of intellectual backgrounds, including evolutionists, and creationists, or the incredulous prehistorians of the time, were unable to accept his theories. Altamira was forgotten.
In 1902, the French prehistorian, Émile Cartailhac, published Les cavernes ornées de dessins. La grotte d'Altamira, Espagne. Mea Culpa d'un sceptique, acknowledging their original value. From then on, the cave of Altamira has been universally recognised and transformed into an icon and a destination for those seeking to discover the origins of humankind.
From that point, visitor numbers increased year on year, until it became necessary to restrict access and adopt a strict conservation programme for the cave, its art, and the surroundings. The creation of the Museum of Altamira, administered by the Spanish Ministry of Culture, together with its UNESCO world heritage status provide a framework for the protection of this national monument of humanity.