Remains of nine Neanderthals found in cave south of Rome

Italian archaeologists believe most of Neanderthals were killed by hyenas then dragged back to den

Italian archaeologists have unearthed the bones of nine Neanderthals who were allegedly hunted and mauled by hyenas in their den about 100km south-east of Rome.

Scientists from the Archaeological Superintendency of Latina and the University of Tor Vergata in Rome said the remains belong to seven adult males and one female, while another are those of a young boy.

Experts believe the individuals lived in different time periods. Some bones could be as old as 50,000 to 68,000 years, whereas the most ancient remains are believed to be 100,000 years old.

The Neanderthal remains, which include skullcaps and broken jawbones, were found in the Guattari cave, which had already gained notoriety for the presence of fossils of these distant human cousins, which were found by chance in 1939. Since then, no further human remains had been uncovered in Guattari.

A frontal view of a female skull and a right hand thumb metacarpal bone are among the fossilised remains.
A frontal view of a female skull and a right hand thumb metacarpal bone are among the fossilised remains. Photograph: Italian Ministry of Culture/AFP/Getty

“It is a spectacular find,” said Mario Rolfo, professor of archaeology at Tor Vergata University. “A collapse, perhaps caused by an earthquake, sealed this cave for more than 60,000 years, thereby preserving the remains left inside for tens of thousands of years.”

Researchers found traces of vegetables alongside human remains and those of rhinoceroses, giant deer, wild horses and, of course, ferocious hyenas.

According to the researchers, most of the Neanderthals had been killed by hyenas and then dragged back to the cave they had transformed into their den. Once inside, the animals consumed their prey.

“Neanderthals were prey for these animals,” said Rolfo. “Hyenas hunted them, especially the most vulnerable, like sick or elderly individuals.”

Even before these ferocious predators took possession of the cave, experts do not exclude the possibility that Neanderthals had at one time made it their home.

Rolfo has announced that his team of researchers intended to analyse the DNA of these individuals to understand their ways of life and history.

A preliminary analysis of dental tartar has revealed that their diet was varied. They primarily consumed cereals, which contributed to the growth of their brains.

The Guattari Cave in San Felice Circeo, south of Rome.
The Guattari Cave in San Felice Circeo, south of Rome. Photograph: Italian Ministry of Culture/AFP/Getty

It is an extraordinary discovery that the whole world will talk about,” said Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini. “These findings will help to enrich studies on Neanderthals.”

Neanderthals inhabited Eurasia, from the Atlantic coast to the Ural mountains, from about 400,000 years ago until a little after 40,000 years ago, disappearing after our species established itself in the region. Last year, remains and tools found in Bulgaria, revealed that modern humans and Neanderthals were present at the same time in Europe for several thousand years, giving them ample time for biological and cultural interaction.

Often portrayed as the simple, stocky relatives of modern humans, Neanderthals had, in fact, similar brains and developed a rich culture. Beyond their complex stone tools and painted jewellery, the Neanderthals used to adorn caves in art, leaving hand stencils behind for modern humans to ponder long after they died out.

Contributor

Lorenzo Tondo in Palermo

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Neanderthals built mysterious cave structures 175,000 years ago
Constructions discovered deep in a French cave rank among the earliest human building projects ever discovered, but their purpose remains unclear

Ian Sample Science editor

25, May, 2016 @5:01 PM

Article image
Cave find shows Neanderthals collected seafood, scientists say
Discovery adds to growing evidence that Neanderthals were very similar to modern humans

Nicola Davis

26, Mar, 2020 @6:00 PM

Article image
Neanderthals – not modern humans – were first artists on Earth, experts claim
Neanderthals painted on cave walls in Spain 65,000 years ago – tens of thousands of years before modern humans arrived, say researchers

Ian Sample Science editor

22, Feb, 2018 @7:00 PM

Article image
So Neanderthals made abstract art? This astounding discovery humbles every human
Scientists say cave paintings in Spain, thought to have been by our ancestors, were actually by Neanderthals. So did they teach us everything we know?

Jonathan Jones

23, Feb, 2018 @2:10 PM

Article image
Neanderthals dived for shells to make tools, research suggests
Study adds weight to claims that stereotype of knuckle-headed Neanderthals is wrong

Nicola Davis

15, Jan, 2020 @7:00 PM

Article image
Neanderthals helped create early human art, researcher says
Archaeologist says ability to think and create objects may not have been restricted to homo sapiens

Dalya Alberge

15, Mar, 2021 @4:38 PM

Article image
Humans and Neanderthals 'co-existed in Europe for far longer than thought'
Cave objects suggest modern humans and Neanderthals shared continent for several thousand years

Nicola Davis

11, May, 2020 @3:20 PM

Article image
World’s oldest art is in Africa, not Europe | Letters
Letters: Didn’t you report in 2002 that two tiny pieces of engraved ochre found in Blombos Cave in South Africa were the oldest works of art ever discovered, writes John Picton

Letters

27, Feb, 2018 @6:21 PM

Article image
Prehistoric bones found in Spain are ancestors of Neanderthals

Discovery suggests distinctive Neanderthal features evolved at different rates

Joel Achenbach

01, Jul, 2014 @1:00 PM

Article image
Gibraltar cave chamber discovery could shed light on Neanderthals’ culture
Researchers find space in Gorham’s Cave complex that has been closed off for at least 40,000 years

Sam Jones in Madrid

28, Sep, 2021 @4:00 AM