Roccamonfina & The Devil's Footprints
Just to the north of Naples, in the province of Caserta, is the Roccamonfina Regional Park. It is in the hills just north of the Campanian plain and the Volturno river and bounded on the other side by the Garigliano river valley. The area contains the towns of Roccamonfina, Sessa Aurunca, and Teano, among others. The area is rich in history, from the "cyclopean" (very large) walls of pre-Roman Italic peoples to Roman ruins to medieval towns and churches, to Teano (where Garibaldi and King Victor Emanuel met and shook hands in 1861 to seal the future of the new Italy. Dramatic history lasted all the way up into WWII; the area borders on the Liri valley, called "Death Valley" by soldiers of the Allied armies advancing on the ferocious German defenses at Monte Cassino in 1943.
The Roccamonfina park, itself, is an area of some 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres). The most prominent part of the park is the Roccamonfina volcano, the oldest volcanic complex in the Campania region of Italy. The geological history of the Roccamonfina volcano had three main eruptive periods: (1) 630,000 - 400,000 years ago; (2) 385,000 and 230,000 years ago); (3) a period that ended 50,000 years ago, just as the better known eruptions to the south, i.e. the Archiflegrean caldera and, later, Mt. Vesuvius were about to start.
The most remarkable thing within the Roccamonfina park is the presence of early "human" footprints, or at least footprints made by our hominid ancestors. There are 56 such impressions on the slopes of the volcano, footprints laid down between 325,000 and 385,000 years ago, during the second eruptive period of the volcano. The prints display raised arches and ball and heel impressions; they were left by a small band of individuals, from 3-6 persons. The prints and length of stride indicate that they were under five-feet tall. The individuals belonged to a pre-human species, probably to the hominid ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, the direct ancestor of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens. If these assessments are correct, they are the oldest prints of the Homo genus ever found. Although the prints were first reported reliably and scientifically just a few years ago in 2003, the prints have been known to locals for centuries and have earned the name in folklore as the Ciampate del Diavolo—the Devil's footprints. After all, who else could run through molten lava?
If the estimates of the size of the individuals are correct, they were somewhat shorter than the typical adult Homo heidelbergensis. Maybe anomalous individuals, or maybe a group of children. Whoever they were, they were running and scrambling downhill (there are also hand prints to indicate that they reached down to steady themselves on the steep terrain). Most likely they were fleeing an eruption. Think about it —they ran for their lives through lava still hot enough to take the imprints of their feet. We don't know if they made it.
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