The ancient remains of nine Neanderthals found near Rome have been discovered in a cave. Italian archaeologists speculate as to how the Neanderthals found near Rome died, discovered tell-tale smashed bones which revealed a brutal story in which a pack of hyenas attacked and killed the hunters, before dragging them back to their cave den and feasting on them.
Fossilized Neanderthals found near Rome in the Guattari Cave in San Felice Circeo. (Emanuele Antonio Minerva / Italian Ministry of Culture)
Neanderthals Found Near Rome Likely Also Lived In Caves
The Guattari Cave was discovered in 1939 in San Felice Circeo about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south-east of Rome. At that time the discovery sparked international interest after Italian archaeologists unearthed what was hailed as “one of the best preserved Neanderthal skulls ever found.”
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According to The New York Times , because this skull had a large hole in the temple, its finder, paleontologist Alberto Carlo Blanc, suggested that the cave’s Neanderthal inhabitants had engaged in “ritual cannibalism.”
While Neanderthals are often portrayed as less intelligent, but stronger relatives of modern humans, it is now known that our cousins had similar sized brains, developed complex stone tools, wore jewellery, and maintained “a culture” that we find represented in their cave art.
Finding so many Neanderthal bones at one site “is very rare,” the Italian Culture Ministry archaeologist in charge of the excavation said. (Emanuele Antonio Minerva / Italian Ministry of Culture)
The “Hunting Hyena Hypothesis” Takes Over
The 2010 publication of the Neanderthal draft genome sequence revealed that “about 2 percent of the DNA in the genomes of modern-day people with Eurasian ancestry is Neanderthal in origin.” Then, in September 2020, a Sciencereport by evolutionary geneticists Martin Petr and Janet Kelso showed how Homo sapiens’ DNA “imprinted onto Neanderthal populations when the two species met in Eurasia around 45,000 years ago.”
Now, a team of scientists from the Archaeological Superintendency of Latina and the University of Tor Vergata in Rome have unearthed more human remains in the Guattari Cave cave mixed in with those of rhinoceroses, giant deer, wild horses and hyenas.
Among the ancient remains the researchers identified “nine Neanderthals: seven adult males, one female and a young boy.” Some of the bones are 50,000 to 68,000 years old, while other are believed to be 100,000 years old.
This image released by the Italian Culture Ministry shows a fossil jaw that was discovered in the cave southeast of Rome, shedding new light on how the Italian peninsula was populated and under what environmental conditions. (Emanuele Antonio Minerva / Italian Ministry of Culture)
Sometimes Neanderthal Hunters Became The Hunted
An article in The Guardian says that among the Neanderthal remains uncovered at the Guattari cave the researchers discovered “ skullcaps and broken jawbones.” Accounting for this, Dr Mario Rolfo, professor of archaeology at Tor Vergata University, said evidence suggests some of the Neanderthals had met their demise after being “hunted, mauled and dragged back to their den” and eaten. Neanderthals were “prey for these animals,” said Rolfo, and he added that hyenas “hunted them, especially the most vulnerable, like sick or elderly individuals.”
Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, said the new findings were “extraordinary” and Dr Mario Rolfo describes the discovery as “spectacular.” However, none of this would have been discovered if an earthquake hadn’t sealed the cave for more than 60,000 years, trapping the evidence within a virtual time capsule.
While it is known that hyenas made a den inside the cave while they ate the Neanderthals, the researchers think that the shelter might at one time have served Neanderthal populations as an actual hunting station /residence.
The remains scattered across the cave floor. One of the Neanderthals found in the cave lived about 100,000 to 90,000 years ago. The other eight were dated to around 65,000 to 50,000 years ago. (Emanuele Antonio Minerva / Italian Ministry of Culture)
Dental Tartar and Vegetable Matter Adds To Neanderthal Info
The researchers in Italy also discovered the remains of vegetable matter in the cave and a preliminary analysis of dental tartar has revealed that the Neanderthals “ate a varied diet including cereals,” which are associated with brain expansion .
Dr Rolfo has announced that his team of researchers now plan to analyze the Neanderthal’s in an effort to better understand “their ways of life and history.”
Only in February this year we wrote about another team of archaeologists who were planning on re-analyzing ancient Neanderthal teeth discovered at the start of the 20th century in a Jersey cave. This team claimed that interbreeding between Neanderthals and modern humans occurred earlier than previously thought, and that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens “had a shared ancestry.”
One thing that is now perfectly clear is that both species of ancient hunters were on the menu for hyenas during the turbulent times when man and beast battled for survival.
Top image: These hyenas are fighting over a zebra leg. But the Neanderthals found near Rome were likely also eaten by these predators inside and outside of their cave.