Archaeologists surveying the Guattari Cave, near Rome, have discovered the fossilized remains of nine Neanderthals. One of the early humans lived 90,000 to 100,000 years ago, while the others lived between 50,000 and 68,000 years ago.
Researchers had previously found a Neanderthal skull in the cave in 1939. The new find makes the location “one of the most significant places in the world for the history of Neanderthals,” says the Italian Ministry of Culture in a statement, per a translation by the Associated Press (AP).
As Lorenzo Tondo reports for the Guardian, Stone Age hyenas used the cave as a den and likely targeted the Neanderthals as prey.
“Hyenas hunted them, especially the most vulnerable, like sick or elderly individuals,” Mario Rolfo, an archaeologist at Tor Vergata University, tells the Guardian.
The newly discovered remains belong to one woman, seven men and a young boy. The team surveying the cave also found the fossilized remains of hyenas, rhinoceroses, giant deer and wild horses.
“It is a spectacular find,” Rolfo tells the Guardian. “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.”
The researchers plan to study the fossils’ DNA to learn more about these ancient human relatives. Already, an analysis of the Neanderthals’ dental tartar has found that they mainly ate cereals, which contributed to brain growth.
Per Elisabetta Povoledo of the New York Times, the 1939 discovery of a Neanderthal skull in the cave attracted international attention. The paleontologist who studied it at the time argued that a large hole in its temple was the result of ritual cannibalism. But the new research, which began in October 2019, shows that the damage was probably actually caused by hyenas.
Neanderthals lived across Europe and in southwestern to central Asia beginning around 400,000 years ago, according the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Initiative. They vanished about 40,000 years ago, though many modern humans still carry some of their genetic legacy.
Francesco Di Mario, an archaeologist with the culture ministry, tells the Times that it’s rare to find so many Neanderthal remains in one place. The fact that hyenas managed to ensnare this group suggests the area—now home to the coastal town of San Felice Circeo—hosted a large local population. (Whether the carnivores killed the Neanderthals or simply ate the humans’ remains following their deaths due to outside causes is unknown, reports the Times.)
The researchers say the cave may have been home to Neanderthals before the hyenas made it their own. The scholars discovered burned bones, carved stones and bones with cut marks suggestive of hunting.
“We found rich traces of Neanderthal life,” Rolfo tells the Times.
As Franz Lidz wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2019, quarrymen in Germany discovered the first known fossilized Neanderthal skull in 1856. Researchers long dismissed the species as lacking language, art and other aspects of human culture, but in recent years, archaeological finds have testified to Neanderthals’ diverse range of activities, including making art, cooking, trading jewelry and burying their dead.
For San Felice Circeo, the new discoveries represent a possible tourist attraction. As Mayor Giuseppe Schiboni tells the Times, he has applied for funding from the European Union to develop that market. The cave is located on the grounds of a hotel that is now up for sale; Schiboni hopes to buy the property and turn it into a center for Neanderthal studies.