The bones of nine Neanderthals have been found in a previously unexplored part of Guattari Cave, Central Italy, along with the remains of many long-gone animal inhabitants of the area. However, the find undermines the view of our nearest relatives as the apex predator of their ecosystem. Instead, the bones were gnawed on by hyenas that are thought to have dragged them into the cave.
Guattari Cave in Mount Circeo has been a rich source of information on Pleistocene Europe since the discovery of Neanderthal and animal bones there in 1939. Eight years later, however, it was reasonable to think we’d learned everything the cave system had to teach us about human occupation of Europe. However, in 2019 scientists began exploring a part of the cave that had been blocked off in a landslide.
The cave is filled with the bones of hyenas that apparently made it their den, but the archaeologists also found the remains of nine Neanderthals, eight of which have been dated to 50,000-68,000 years ago, while the other lived at least 90,000 years before now.
The buried cave section also contains bones of aurochs, rhinoceroses, extinct giant deer, cave bears, elephants, and wild horses, along with red deer, the one large species surviving nearby.
"The geological and sedimentological study of this deposit will make us understand the climatic changes that took place between 120 thousand and 60 thousand years ago, through the study of species animals and pollen, allowing us to reconstruct the history of the Circeo and the Pontine plain," Professor Mario Rolfo, of the University of Rome Tor Vergata said in a statement.
It was thought that hyenas could only take down young and sick members of the human family, but this does not seem to be the case. Although one of the Neanderthals appears to have been a youth, the other eight were adults, seven males and one female. Rolfo is quoted by the Guardian as attributing their deaths to hyena hunting, rather than the bones being scavenged after death at the jaws of a larger predator.
An analysis of the Neanderthals’ dental tartar indicates they themselves lived largely on cereals, dealing another blow to the modern notion of a universal low-carb Palaeolithic diet.
The Italian Minister of Culture, Dario Franceschini called the find "An extraordinary discovery that the whole world will talk about because it enriches research on Neanderthals. It is the result of the work of our Superintendency together with universities and research bodies, truly an exceptional thing."
Even if you don't speak Italian, the visuals in this video might make it worth your time.
The scientists have also been exploring nearby areas outside the cave, where the presence of charcoal and burnt bones reveal Neanderthal occupation. Despite Neanderthal mastery of fire, however, it seems the hyenas had the last laugh.
Studies of the Neanderthal fossils previously found in Guattari led some anthropologists to conclude they had been murdered by other Neanderthals, and might well have been the victims of cannibalism. The new discovery makes it more likely hyenas were responsible for those deaths as well.