Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews  entry Jan and May 26, 2016
Everything is related to Naples
Number 161 in this series. Link to all items here.

Early Modern Humans in Southern Italy

—of Neanderthals, Aurignacians and Uluzzians

—and some splendid caves 

Those who study and classify prehistoric cultures use the term "type site" to mean a site that is a model for others. Those that are similar in terms of human remains, tools and other cultural artifacts are then classified as part of a particular culture and are named for the type site. Thus, we may find a site somewhere in eastern Europe and say that it is "Neanderthal" (modern spelling "Neandertal") because it is similar to the type site in the Neander Valley in Germany (near Düsseldorf) where the first discoveries were made (1856) that led to a description of that widespread and long-lasting prehistoric at least 100,000 to 35,000 BP—before present).

Scientific opinion concurs generally that approximately 40,0000-45,000 years ago, modern humans appeared in Europe and for a period possibly as long as 5-to-10,000 years) co-existed with the Neanderthals. After this co-existence, the Neanderthals disappeared. (It isn't clear exactly why. Possibly they were absorbed into the modern human line,* or they may just have disappeared because they couldn't adapt to changing environmental conditions. It is not likely that they were "driven to extinction" in some last great epic Battle of the Cave Men, although there have been bad movies about that.) These first modern humans in Europe, then, are referred to as members of the Aurignacian culture, a name originating from the type site (discovered in 1860) of Aurignac, France (60 km SW of Toulouse). The period of the Aurignacians lasted broadly from 45,000 to 35,000 BP. Aurignacian remains are identifiably different from those of the Neanderthals, and the period produced, besides improvements in tools, the rock art found in caves in France, Spain, and Italy.

While central Europe has an abundance of evidence of the activities of our early modern ancestors, the Aurignacians, opinion until very recently has been that sites in southern Italy as old as 40,000 BP represented earlier Neanderthal populations and that Aurignacians did not penetrate until 30,000-35,000 BP into southern Italy. Classifying a succession of prehistoric cultures is complex since many sites—the Famane cave near Verona, Italy, for example—have many layers representing a chain that might stretch over thousands of years. In southern Italy, in addition to the traditional terms of Neanderthal and Aurignacian there is now also the term Uluzzian, also from a place name, Uluzzo Bay, on the Ionian Sea, i.e., the west side of the "heel" of the Italian boot, north of the town of Gallipoli. The type site was first explored in 1961 by Arturo Palma di Cesnola of the University of Siena and Edoardo Borzatti von Lowenstern of the University of Florence. The term "Uluzzian" was coined by the former, apparently based on his conclusion that there were sufficient differences from Neanderthal sites to warrant classification as a different type. The site type is in a coastal area that contains more than a dozen other caves with evidence of prehistoric human presence.

The original Uluzzian site was considered Neanderthal in most sources—that is, not as developed as Aurugnacian sites in the north. That situation has changed recently and dramatically with a report in the science journal Nature by Stefano Benazzi, a physical anthropologist at the University of Vienna. Teeth and a jaw fragment discovered in the Grotta del Cavallo on the bay of Uluzzo (#1 on map, below) in 1964 and first identified as Neanderthal remains were reexamined by Benazzi (2011) using digital models from CT scans to compare the teeth to other Neanderthal remains. His team found that the Italian teeth are more closely related to modern humans. Thus the Grotta del Cavallo site is likely to be Aurignacian; the evidence now seems to indicate that modern humans lived in southern Italy 45,000 BP, 5,000 years earlier than previously believed. Benazzi writes that "...the Cavallo human remains are therefore the oldest known European anatomically modern humans, confirming a rapid dispersal of modern humans across the continent before the Aurignacian and the disappearance of Neanderthals." Note that the expression "before the Aurignacian" relegates "Aurignacian" to a position of lesser importance in attempts to straighten out the chronology of early humans in Europe—or at least upgrades "Uluzzian" to mean something like "southern Aurignacian." Both terms mean "modern human."

1. Grotta del Cavallo    2. The Paglicci Cave             
  3. The Camerota Caves      4. The Castelcivita Cave     
The report also invites us to reconsider other sites, such as la Grotte des Fées, in Châtelperron, France, the eponym of another paleolithic culture, the Châtelperronian, also somewhat unclearly astride the boundary between the Middle and Upper Stone Age. The change from a Neanderthal to an Aurignacian (modern human) population is, in fact, that boundary, but since the changeover lasted thousands of years, you (the Châtelperronians) could leave prehistoric prints on both sides and in the middle to confuse scientists in the distant future. Making sense of all this is complicated since other recent research (Riel-Salvatore) indicates that the lowly, long denigrated Neanderthals may have been smarter than we thought and more capable of adaptation. Neanderthals and modern humans co-existed for at least 5,000 years often in the same places(!), distributing their artifacts through various layers likely to be mixed by natural forces over the centuries. To my non-expert mind that is confusing, but perhaps I am easily confused.

There are a number of interesting prehistoric sites in southern Italy (map, right). Again, the question is not whether there is evidence of any prehistoric presence in southern Italy. Such evidence is abundant. (See Homo Erectus Aeserniensis about a site near Naples where there is evidence of ancestral human activity from 700,000 years ago!) Indeed, many of the sites on the map show ample evidence of Neanderthal presence. Nor is the question whether or not there was later modern human (Aurignacian) presence. There was, but most research at these sites shows that it started about 30,000 BP. That would fit the traditional opinion that modern humans were late-comers to the south. The question is whether the claim based on work done at Grotta del Cavallo will hold up and whether there is similar evidence just waiting to be found. If there is, then "Uluzzian" will have earned its promotion to type site.

The Camerota Caves         added 7 Jan 2015

The Blue Grotto of Camerota          
To me, the most interesting cave sites near Naples are near the town of Camerota (n. 3 on the map), about 130 km/80 miles south of Naples. The area near the tip of that flattened stretch of coast line that juts out into the Tyrrhenian Sea to separate the gulf of Salerno to the north and the gulf of Policastro to the south is about 50 km long and is part of the Cilento & Vallo di Diano National Park. At the southernmost tip of that stretch, you are within the boundaries of the town of Camerota. The coast displays a number of caves, both sea caves and surface grottoes. (Other names may be used, such as the Centola caves, but "Camerota caves" is most common.) Thirty-two caves have been counted so far, on the surface as well as submerged, excavated into these “Palinuro cliffs” (from the name of Aeneas' helmsman in Virgil's Aeneid). A few them are now tourist attractions with guided tours from a boat, setting out to explore such natural works of art as the Blue Grotto (pictured), the Silver Grotto, the Monks' Grotto, and the Grotto of Blood. The Blue Grotto, for example, is the best known and most visited. The intense plays of blue in the water are every bit as impressive as in the more famous sea cave of the same name on Capri. The flora and fauna in the Blue Grotto make it  a miniature biological laboratory, and it has been the object of serious scientific interest since the 1980s. A few meters further on you find the Hall of Snow, a chamber where there are examples of other color variations and hydrodynamism in the form of thermal vents at the bottom; water loaded with sulfur mixes with the sea water and sulfur bacteria on the rocks in the grotto to produce a kind of underwater “snow storm” quite visible to scuba divers. The best known of the caves, as noted, bear descriptive names. Cala Fetente (Stinky Cave!) lets you know what to expect: the greatest manifestation along the coast of the smell of sulphydric acid (rotten eggs!). The whole cave is 300 meters long; you walk in for the first 20 meters and then there's a lake. Sulphur bacteria have built up visible colonies on many of the surfaces. And so forth.

Many of the caves show signs of human habitation at some point in the distant past.  Interestingly, one of them, called Cave of Bones (near Marina di Molpa), had so many human remains that researchers first  thought they had stumbled upon much more recent evidence of, say, Roman ships wrecked along this coast as they returned from the Punic Wars. Not so. Research now shows them to be pre-historic. So far, I have not seen the claim that there is Aurignacian presence here as early as the one at Grotta del Cavallo, but the Camerota caves do show Neanderthal and later Aurignacian presence (30,000 BP).

[See also, the Paglicci Grotto, #2 on the map & the Castelcivita Cave, #3 on map]

[another related item at Roccamonfina] [also
caves (Coastal)(1)   (2)]

*note: on Neanderthals being "absorbed into the modern human line." There is a project going on called the Neanderthal Genome Project, a collaboration of scientists coordinated by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and 454 Life Sciences to sequence the Neanderthal genome (Callaway, sources). (454 Life Sciences is a biotechnology company based in Branford, Connecticut, USA; it is a subsidiary of Roche and specializes in DNA sequencing.) Results so far support the likelihood of interbreeding of Neanderthal and modern humans: "They so closely related that some researchers group them as a single species...Archaeological evidence suggests that humans and Neanderthals overlapped for about 10,000 years in Europe and some fossils have even been interpreted as Neanderthal-human hybrids, though not all palaeoanthropologists agree on this." ^to text

-Bietti, Alicare. (1997). "The Transistion to Anatomically Modern Humans: The Case of Peninsular Italy" in Conceptual Issues in Modern Human Origins, chapter 9. Editors G.A. Clark & C.M. Willermet. Aldine De Gruyter, Inc. Hawthrine, New York.

-Benazzi, Stefano et al. (2011) "Early dispersal of modern humans in Europe and implications for Neanderthal behaviour" in Nature 479, 525-528.

-Callaway, Ewen. (2010) "Neanderthal genome reveals interbreeding with humans" in New Scientist, off-sitehere.

 -Mussi, M. Patrizia Gioia & F. Negrino. (2006). "Ten Small Sites: the Diversity of the Italian Aurugnacian" in Towards a Definition of the Aurignacian: Proceedings of the Symposium Held in Lisbon, Portugal, June 25-30, 2002. Instituto Portugues de Arqueologia.
-Riel-Salvatore, Julien. (2010) "A Niche Construction Perspective on the Middle-Upper Paleolithic Transition in Italy" in Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. Reported as "Neanderthals more advanced than previously thought" in Science Daily.

-Stringer. C.B. (1992). "Evolution of Early Humans" in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution. Cambridge Uni. Press 1992.

My thanks to Prof. Warren Johnson, who suggested this topic to me.

added May 26, 2016
More on Neanderthals

All cavers know that at least some of the chambers they clamber down and through have hosted very early inhabitants at some time or another. Well-known caves in Spain, France and Italy provide ample evidence that "someone used to live here." At least when it comes to complex cultural artifacts, "someone" has usually been interpreted to mean early homo sapiens—modern humans (probably from 40,000 years ago)—and not our more "primitive" cousins from the same genus, homo neanderthalensis. Now, in May of 2016, a number of popular journals have published articles based on a report
by Jaubert, J. et al. in this on-line edition of Nature having to do with very recent discoveries in the Bruniquel Cave (pictured) in southwest France. Essentially, the Neanderthals were a lot less primitive than has traditionally been held. Article headlines and leads say things such as:

-A rock structure, built deep underground, is one of the earliest hominin constructions ever found;
-Walls of stalagmites in a French cave might have had a domestic or a ceremonial use;
-Neanderthals built one of the world’s oldest constructions — 176,000-year-old semicircular walls of stalagmites in the bowels of a cave in southwest France;

Part of the abstract (linked above) reads:

...we report the dating of annular constructions made of broken stalagmites found deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwest France. The regular geometry of the stalagmite circles, the arrangement of broken stalagmites and several traces of fire demonstrate the anthropogenic origin of these constructions. Uranium-series dating of stalagmite regrowths on the structures and on burnt bone, combined with the dating of stalagmite tips in the structures, give a reliable and replicated age of 176.5 thousand years (±2.1 thousand years), making these edifices among the oldest known well-dated constructions made by humans. Their presence at 336 metres from the entrance of the cave indicates that humans from this period had already mastered the underground environment, which can be considered a major step in human modernity.

Readers should note that such discoveries contribute to the so-called "rehabilitation" of the Neanderthals. They have gone from low-or-no-brow cave men with no culture to quite something else: they made tools, used fire, created art, practiced religion, and, probably, had language. Stay tuned. This promises to be important.
photo: Etienne FABRE - SSAC

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