Friday, June 8, 2012

The Neanderthals of Grotta Guattari

It has been more than a week since I posted. For that you have my sincerest apologies. I'm just not able to turn things over as quickly as I would like. However the script is written and hopefully Episode 6 of the History of Europe Podcast will go up tonight. But just to whet your whistle I thought I might get a couple of posts up today. The first is on the Neanderthal Cave found in San Felice Cicero in the Lazio region of Italy.

The cave was discovered in 1939 when the area was being quarried. The land was owned by a guy named Guattari and thus, gave it the name. The cave had been blocked to the outside world for thousands of years because of a landslide that occurred long, long ago. The cave was explored and the remains of animals, a small stone circle and the skull of a Neanderthal was found therein. Later, a couple of Neanderthal jawbones were found. Each of these artifacts received the name Cicero, so the cave yielded the Neanderthal remains of Cicero I, Cicero II and Cicero III.

The initial archeological work was done by an Italian paleontologist by the name of Alberto Carlo Blanc. From the finds in the cave he postulated that the skull found showed evidence of human consumption. This cannibalism theory would have fit well with the leading theories at the time. However, the presence of hyena remains gave rise to a different theory. This one suggested that the cave was a hyena den and that the skull had been damaged when it was eaten by hyenas and not some other cave man. However, both of these theories have been displaced by another one, that has had the benefit of modern techniques like radiocarbon dating. This theory suggests that the cave had some early inhabitation by prehistoric hominins as far back as 100,000 BC. Then sometime around 55,000 BC it became used by Neanderthals. This is when the skull and jaw bones date from. This date would make the Grotta Guattari Neanderthals the oldest in Italy. Then, at some point after 50,000 BC a landslide occurred that limited the entrance size making it difficult for prehistoric man to enter, but perfect for hyenas. That is when the cave switched to being a hyena den. Some time shortly after transitioning from a human home to a hyena one though, another landslide occurred, blocking the entry way until it was discovered by mistake in 1939.

While Carlo Blanc's theory was debunked much later in 1989, his paleontological work was used throughout much of the 20th century. He was on the team that introduced the world to Saccopastore man, found in the rural areas surrounding Rome. Like Cicero I (pictured), Blanc thought the remains of Saccopastore man showed signs of cannibalism because of the large hole in the skull. Along with the remains of two people, one man and one woman that appear to have been Neanderthals, the site yielded numerous Mouseterian tools, remains of ancient hippopotami, straight-tusked elephants  and ancient rhinoceros bones.

1 comment:

  1. I point out that (unfortunately) the Grotta Guattari is definitely closed (except very rare openings). On the other hand, the municipality of San Felice has completed a project of "virtualization" of the cave for which it is always possible to visit, even if in virtual, the archaeological site. News of the collaboration is available here:
    Repubblica but also on many other newspapers.
    If you are interested to visit the Grotta Guattari please use this link
    A version for VR viewers (like Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard) was also available at this URL