A look inside the world of the Neanderthals

The remains from nine individuals apparently stashed in a cave by hyenas is just one example of recent finds that reveal new details of Neanderthal life.

By Jacopo Pasotti
Published 13 Jan 2023, 09:31 GMT
A life-size silicone reproduction of a Neanderthal known as Altamura Man is exhibited at the Museo Archeologico in Altamura, Italy. Created by paleo-artists Adrie and Alfons Kennis, the reproduction is based on the analyses of the original skeleton in Lamalunga cave—one of the oldest known Neanderthal fossils.

Until about 40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens shared the planet with our closest known relatives, the Neanderthals. These hominins, shorter and stockier than modern humans, inhabited areas from Western Europe to Central Asia, and archaeological finds reveal that the Neanderthals were remarkably resourceful. They made stone tools, hunted large animals, used fire, wore clothing, and engaged in some symbolic behaviours, possibly even burying their dead.

Despite these capabilities, the Neanderthals rapidly declined following a large migration of Homo sapiens into Europe. Scientists still debate whether competition with our species or changing environments was the primary cause of the extinction, but clues from Neanderthal sites could help answer this question and many more about our ancient human relatives.

Anthropologist Giorgio Manzi examines the "Saccopastore 1" and "2" Neanderthal skulls at the Museo di Antropologia G. Sergi della Sapienza in Rome. An excavation where the skulls were found also brought to light stone tools and elephant, hippopotamus, and rhinoceros bones, which attest to the antiquity of the human fossils, dating to approximately 130,000 years ago.
Photograph by Paolo Petrignani

In Italy, for instance, new details of Neanderthal life are being discovered in the caverns, shelters, and temporary encampments that they used. In Guattari Cave, near the coastal town of San Felice Circeo south of Rome, Neanderthal remains likely collected by once-local spotted hyenas were recently discovered. Hyenas are known to hoard bones in their dens, and this ancient assemblage included seven Neanderthal men, one woman, and a young boy, leading researchers to conclude that an entire Neanderthal community could have once lived in the area.

The Monte Circeo Promontory is full of coastal caves, such as Fossellone (the entrance can be seen in the photo), Breuil, and Guattari, where excavations have unearthed Neanderthal finds. Between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, Circeo was surrounded by plains and inhabited by some of the last Neanderthals.
Photograph by Paolo Petrignani

This region of Italy, mountainous and rich in limestone caves, was suitable for providing shelter to ancestral human populations. The caves may have served as shelters to be revisited by perennial nomads, tracking prey according to the changing seasons.

In the past, researchers have relied on Neanderthal bones and fragments of tools or weapons to learn about these ancient human relatives. Today, however, experts have sophisticated tools to search Neanderthal dwellings for a wealth of information about their lives, even when the inhabitants' fossil remains are lacking.

Between 2019 and 2022, excavations in the Guattari Cave in Circeo brought to light the remains of nine individuals dating back to a period between 100,000 and 57,000 years ago. The excavations were carried out by the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio for the regions of Frosinone and Latina, and by the Università di Roma Tor Vergata, under the guidance of Francesco Di Mario.
Photograph by Paolo Petrignani
The skull and fossil bones of Altamura Man are still located where they were discovered almost thirty years ago, encased in rock and a layer of calcite in Lamalunga cave, near the city of Altamura in southern Italy. Dating back 130,000 years or more, the remains are covered in calcite deposits that have formed nodes known as cave popcorn. The fossil was originally found by cave researchers with the Centro Altamurano Ricerche Speleologiche.

With advances in technology, studying the caves inhabited by Neanderthals has become something like entering an abandoned house, full of traces of the past. Some of the most remarkable discoveries in recent years come from once-ignored details of Neanderthal debris. Hearth ashes reveal the use of fire, discarded animal bones preserve signs of butchery techniques, and the shapes of stone flakes hint at the sophistication of Neanderthal tool production. Chemically dated pigments have even suggested that Neanderthals made cave paintings.

Many mysteries remain about the Neanderthals, such as how frequently they engaged in symbolic behaviour and what exactly led to their demise. But with new scientific discoveries revealing extraordinary details of Neanderthal life, we are learning more about our close human relatives than ever before.

Excavations were carried out in Cala dei Santi on the west coast of Italy by Ivan Martini and Vincenzo Spagnolo from the Università di Siena. The site was occupied by Neanderthals between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago.
Photograph by Paolo Petrignani
The sun rises outside the Cala dei Santi Cave on Italy's Argentario promontory into the Mediterranean Sea. In the late Pleistocene, approximately 50,000 years ago, the waters had receded, and the plains where Neanderthals likely hunted would have been visible.
Photograph by Paolo Petrignani

This story was adapted from National Geographic’s Italian edition. 


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