ROME – When a Neanderthal skull was discovered in a cave on the property of a beach hotel south of Rome in 1939, the theory arose that Neanderthals had practiced ritual cannibalism since their exposure and pulled the brains of their victims out to eat.
Now a find in the same place, published on Saturday, seems to have confirmed the real culprit: Stone Age hyenas.
During new excavations at the site in the coastal town of San Felice Circeo, fossil remains of nine other Neanderthals of different sex and age have been discovered, along with the bones of long-extinct hyenas, elephants, rhinos and even the Urus or aurochs, today’s extinct ancestors of domestic cattle.
Experts say the results at the Guattari Cave will offer new insights into the culinary specialties of the Neanderthal diet and much more.
“The story of the cave didn’t end in 1939 and still had a lot to tell,” said Mauro Rubini, the chief anthropologist for the local branch of the Ministry of Culture. “Remember that the human skeleton is an impressive archive that tells us everything: their age, gender, height, what they ate, their genome, whether they had any diseases, how much they walked, and even if they could have fun “he said added.
“We are working on solid scientific data to get a complete picture of the situation,” said Rubini, whose staff is responsible for analyzing the Neanderthal remains. One of the Neanderthals found in the cave lived around 100,000 to 90,000 years ago, the other eight were dated around 65,000 to 50,000 years ago.
The discovery of the cave in 1939 caused an international stir when it produced 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 of Alberto Carlo Blanc, the paleontologist who first studied it, that the Neanderthals practiced ritual cannibalism.
In the recent excavation, led by a multidisciplinary team that has been working since October 2019, researchers found hundreds of animal bones with signs that were gnawed by hyenas – the Stone Age ancestors of today’s carnivores – who used the cave as a sort of pantry, said Mario Rolfo who teaches prehistoric archeology at the University of Rome in Tor Vergata.
It appears that the hyenas also had a taste for Neanderthals, and one skull found on the site had a hole similar to the one found in the 1939 skull. This discovery brought Blanc’s theory of cannibalism and cult rituals to a standstill.
‘The reality is more mundane,’ said Professor Rolfo, adding that ‘hyenas like to chew on bones’ and likely have opened a cavity in the skull to get to the brain.
It is unclear whether the Neanderthals were killed by the hyenas or whether the hyenas snack on Neanderthals after they died of other reasons.
“What it means is that there were a lot of Neanderthals in the area,” said Professor Rolfo.
Neanderthals flourished in Europe for about 260,000 years, until about 40,000 years ago, although dating has been the subject of much scientific debate. Their bones have been found in locations across Europe and Western Asia, from Spain to Siberia. “However, it is very rare to find so many in one place,” said Francesco Di Mario, the archaeologist at the Ministry of Culture in charge of the excavation.
The extraction of new fossil remains, as well as the 1939 results, make the cave “one of the most important Paleolithic sites in Europe and the world,” he said.
Italy’s Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini, called the finds an “extraordinary discovery” that enriches research on Neanderthals.
The site was particularly well preserved as a prehistoric landslide had closed the entrance to the cave. When the Guattari Hotel staff came across it eight decades ago, “they found a situation that had been frozen in time and mummified 50,000 years ago,” said Professor Rolfo.
The cave was explored until the early 1950s, but only re-excavated – and explored more fully – in the last 20 months. This work affected areas of the cave that were previously unexplored, including a cavity that is regularly flooded during the winter months.
The team of archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, and paleontologists also worked on the front of the cave and discovered burned bones, carved stones, and bones with cut marks, suggesting they had been hunted.
“We found rich traces of Neanderthal life there,” said Professor Rolfo.
Angelo Guattari, whose father owned the hotel in 1939 and was one of the first to see the earlier Neanderthal skull, said the cave has unfortunately been largely forgotten over time. As the delegate for the cultural heritage of the city of San Felice Circeo, he now hopes that the discoveries will lead to the place opening up to tourists.
The Mayor, Giuseppe Schiboni, has requested funding from the European Union to promote the city’s archaeological and anthropological appeal. The hotel, which once belonged to the Guattari family – has since been renamed the “Neanderthal Hotel” – is for sale. Mr Schiboni said he would like to buy it and set up a European center for Neanderthal studies.
Once the website opens, visitors may be presented with a 10-minute prehistoric virtual reality video “catapulted and catapulted into the cave” as early as this year to help them better understand their surroundings, said Mr Di. Mario, who coordinates the research on site.
Neanderthals, said the anthropologist Rubini, “were the undisputed masters of Eurasia for about 250,000 years.”
Whether the people fit in is an open question, he said.
“We don’t know if we will be – we are still relatively young.”