How an Ancient Woman's Skull Ended up Stuck in a Steep Cave

Could the nature have given her decapitated skull a long and bumpy funeral ritual?
Derya Ozdemir

Back in 2015, a lonesome skull with no other skeletal remains around was discovered in the system of caves known as Marcel Loubens in northern Italy. 

Estimated to be about 5,300 years old, the scientists were confronted with a puzzling mystery: The well-concealed skull, which was missing a lower jaw, could only be reached by crossing a difficult cave passage and ascending a vertical shaft to a weight of 39 feet (12 meters) by using special climbing equipment.

How an Ancient Woman's Skull Ended up Stuck in a Steep Cave
Source: Belcastro et al, 2021, PLOS ONE; CC-BY 4.0

Scientists were perplexed as to how the skull ended up there since no one from that time period would be able to access the remote location. Other questions would follow, why was it so alone and why was there seemingly no other evidence to suggest what had happened to her?

Archaeologists may have finally figured out the answers to those questions. After the skull was retrieved in 2017, numerous studies were conducted, and now archaeologists have finally released a paper in PLOS One, theorizing how it ended up there.

Radiocarbon dating showed that the skull was as ancient as it was puzzling. The traumatic lesions on the skull helped the researchers piece together the mystery. 

How an Ancient Woman's Skull Ended up Stuck in a Steep Cave
Source: Belcastro et al, 2021, PLOS ONE; CC-BY 4.0

Most likely coming from a young woman aged between 24 and 35, this mysterious specimen lived sometime between 3630 and 3380 BCE, during the New Stone Age, or Neolithic period.

Other Eneolithic human remains have been found approximately 2,000 feet (600 meters) away from the cave, but how did this lonesome skull found its way to a cave thousands of miles away? The researchers think they have the answer. 

After it was observed that the skull's defleshed lesions were likely caused by humans and it tumbling against various rocks, a possible scenario formed. The researchers think that the people in her community dismembered her corpse after she died, which is a funeral practice seen in other burials from this time period and region.

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After her skull was separated from the rest of her body and she was laid to rest, it rolled away and flushed into the cave due to water and mudflows that were flowing downhill toward a sinkhole.

The researchers theorize that the water infiltration in the sinkhole could have dissolved gypsum deposits within the cave over time, thus forming the vertical shaft beside the skull's final resting place.

While it's impossible to say whether the researchers are right in their interpretations, this mysterious woman's case study definitely adds to the postmortem practices performed by prehistoric humans.

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