Our closest cousins, the Neanderthals, who survived several ice ages but then likely went extinct due to assimilation into the modern human genome, great climatic change, illness, or a mixture of these factors, roamed Eurasia until around 40,000 years ago, leaving countless cave art, stone tools, and bones in their wake.
With their oval-shaped skull with a short, receding forehead and distinct brow ridges, scientists had never seen anything like them when Neanderthal 1 was discovered in Germany in 1856. Now, the fossilized bones of nine Neanderthals have been discovered in a cave near the coastal town of San Felice Circeo, Rome by archaeologists, along with the bones of long-extinct hyenas, elephants, rhinoceroses, and even the Urus, today's domestic cattle's now-extinct ancestor, the Italian Cultural Ministry announced in a press release.
The findings, which are incredibly valuable since discovering so many Neanderthal bones in one site is unusual, shed new light on how early humans settled on the Italian peninsula, the dietary peculiarities of the Neanderthal diet, and the environmental conditions under which they lived.
From 1939 to today
Back in 1939, a Neanderthal skull was found in the same cave, the Guattari Cave; its climate was sealed 50,000 years ago possibly thanks to an earthquake. The excavations at the same site began again in 2019, focusing on a previously unexplored section of the cave.
Archeologists discovered skulls, skull fragments, two jaws, and other bone fragments, with the oldest fossils dating from 100,000 to 90,000 years ago. The other eight Neanderthals lived approximately between 50,000 and 68,000 years ago, the researchers said.
The first Neanderthal skull discovered in the cave in 1939 had a large hole in the temple, leading to speculation that Neanderthals practiced ritual cannibalism, removing the brains of their victims to eat. This theory has long been debunked; however, the recent excavations show that the culprit was most likely hyenas, who enjoyed "munching on bones," per The New York Times.
The archeologists said most of the Neanderthals had been killed by hyenas and then dragged back to the cave to be consumed. "Neanderthals were prey for these animals," told Mario Rolfo, professor of archaeology at Tor Vergata University, the Guardian. "Hyenas hunted them, especially the most vulnerable, like sick or elderly individuals."
It's also likely that Neanderthals lived in this cave at one point. The remains will be studied further, and first inspections have shown that the Neanderthals' diet was diverse, but mainly consisted of cereals. This aided in the development of their brains, researchers said.
"It is an extraordinary discovery that the whole world will talk about. These findings will help to enrich studies on Neanderthals," said Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini.
Studies on Neanderthals are not sparse: a recent study, for example, outlined how experiencing low or no symptoms from COVID-19 may be attributed to a certain genetic factor inherited from Neanderthals. As we discover more about our closest cousins, we will only be uncovering more about ourselves.