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. 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. 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. The find is on display in Le Musée d'anthropologie préhistorique in Monaco.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
The dating techniques of the day were limited, but the Grimaldi people were believed to be of the late Palaeolithic period. 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. The Aurignacian is 47 000 to 41 000 years old using the most recent calibration of the radiocarbon timescale. With the Grimaldi skeletons situated at the lowest Aurignacian layer, the true age is likely in the earlier range.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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, 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. He documented his manipulations (at least partially), and his intention was to accentuate a feature he really believed to be present. His honesty is further corroborated as he also made and published photos of the excavation, where one can see the old woman lying in a face-down position. Such photos were quite rare for that time.
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. 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. 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. M. Boule and R. Verneau can thus be seen as interpreting the find after the leading theories of the day. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. Later works have shown none of them were passable at the time, though the Bosphorus strait would have been dry. Others have suggested the Grimaldi people may have been related to Bushmen.
Modern knowledge of the genetic history of Europe demonstrates that the European continent has been populated in several waves of ethnic groups. 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.