Archaeologists discover remains of 9 Neanderthals near Rome


Archaeologists discover remains of 9 Neanderthals near Rome

In 1939, a Neanderthal skull was discovered in a cave on the property of a beachfront hotel south of Rome, it prompted a theory, since debunked, that Neanderthals performed ritual cannibalism, extracting the brains of their victims to eat.

A discovery made at the same site on Saturday appears to have identified the true culprit: Stone Age hyenas.

Newly identified Neanderthal bones

New excavations in the coastal town of San Felice Circeo have discovered the fossil remains of nine more Neanderthals of varying sex and age, as well as the bones of long-extinct hyenas, elephants, rhinoceroses, and even the Urus, or Aurochs, the now-extinct ancestor of domestic cattle, among other animals.

Experts say the findings, at the Guattari Cave, will offer fresh insight on the culinary peculiarities of the Neanderthal diet and much more.

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“The story of the cave didn’t finish in 1939 and still had a lot to give,” said Mauro Rubini, chief anthropologist of the local branch of the Culture Ministry. “Consider that the human skeleton is a formidable archive that tells us everything: their age, sex, height, what they ate, their genome, whether they had illnesses, how much they walked and even if they were able to have fun,” he added.

Bone field inside Guattari Cave

The cave’s discovery in 1939 created an international buzz when it yielded what remains one of the best-preserved Neanderthal skulls ever found. The skull had a large hole in the temple, and its fame may have been fueled by the thesis put forth by Alberto Carlo Blanc, the palaeontologist who first studied it, that the Neanderthals had engaged in ritual cannibalism.“We are working on solid scientific data so we can give a complete picture of the situation,” said Rubini, whose staff is in charge of analyzing the Neanderthal remains. One of the Neanderthals found in the cave lived about 100,000 to 90,000 years ago, and the other eight have been dated from around 65,000 to 50,000 years ago.

In the latest excavations, led by a multidisciplinary team that has been working since October 2019, researchers found hundreds of animal bones with signs they had been gnawed on by hyenas — the Stone Age ancestors to today’s carnivores — who used the cave as a sort of pantry, said Mario Rolfo, who teaches prehistoric archaeology at the University of Rome at Tor Vergata.

It appears that the hyenas also had a taste for Neanderthals, and one skull found at the site had a hole similar to the one found in the 1939 cranium. That find definitively put to rest Blanc’s theory of cannibalism and cult rituals.

A fossil jaw that were discovered inside Guattari Cave

It is unclear whether the Neanderthals were killed by the hyenas or the hyenas snacked on Neanderthals after they died from other causes.“Reality is more banal,” Rolfo said, adding that “hyenas like munching on bones” and probably opened a cavity in the skull to get to the brain.

“What it does mean is that there were many Neanderthals in the area,” Rolfo said.

Neanderthals flourished in Europe for about 260,000 years, until roughly 40,000 years ago, though the dating is subject to much scholarly debate. Their bones have been found at sites across Europe and western Asia, from Spain to Siberia. But “finding so many in one site is very rare,” said Francesco Di Mario, the Culture Ministry archaeologist in charge of the excavation.

Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, called the finds an “extraordinary discovery” that enriches research on Neanderthals.The recovery of new fossil remains, along with the 1939 findings, makes the cave “one of the most important Paleolithic sites in Europe and the world,” he said.

The site was particularly well preserved because a prehistoric landslide had closed the entrance to the cave. So when workers at the Guattari Hotel stumbled on it eight decades ago, “they found a situation that had been frozen in time, mummified to 50,000 years ago,” Rolfo said.

Female cranium from individual 5

The cave was studied until the early 1950s but was not excavated again — and studied more comprehensively — until the last 20 months. That work has involved areas of the cave that were previously unexplored, including one cavity that regularly floods in the winter months.

“We found rich traces of Neanderthal life there,” Rolfo said.The team of archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists and paleontologists also worked on the anterior area of the cave, unearthing burned bones, carved stones, and bones with cut marks, indicating that they had been hunted.

Angelo Guattari, whose father owned the hotel in 1939 and was among the first to see the earlier Neanderthal skull, said that over time the cave had been mostly forgotten, unfortunately. Now, as the delegate for cultural heritage for the town of San Felice Circeo, he hopes the discoveries will lead the site to be opened to tourists.

The mayor, Giuseppe Schiboni, has applied for European Union funding to develop the town’s archaeological and anthropological pull. The hotel that the Guattari family once owned — since renamed “Neanderthal Hotel” — is up for sale. Schiboni said that he would love to buy it and install a European center on Neanderthal studies.

Archaeologists discover remains of 9 Neanderthals near Rome
From top to bottom: female cranium from Neanderthal individual 5, top view of cranium, male cranium from individual 4, jaw and teeth from individual 6. Left: right femur from individual 7. Right: Right thumb bone from individual 9

Once the site opens — possibly as soon as this year — visitors will be presented with a 10-minute virtual reality video “and be catapulted into the cave” in its prehistoric guise to help them better understand their surroundings, said Di Mario, who is coordinating the on-site research.

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Neanderthals, said Rubini, the anthropologist, “were the uncontested lords of Eurasia for about 250,000 years.”

Whether humans will match that is an open question, he said. “We don’t know if we will be; we’re still relatively young.”


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