The discovery of a prehistoric human skull in a cave in Italy has disproved theories that Neanderthals indulged in ritual cannibalism – suggesting instead that they were eaten by hyenas.
he skull was one of thousands of fossilised bones and bone fragments found in the large cave near San Felice Circeo, on the Tyrrhenian coast about halfway between Rome and Naples.
The skull has a hole at its base, leading archaeologists to suggest that it was the work of hyenas, gnawing at the bone to get at the brains inside.
They say they cannot be sure whether the hyenas killed the Neanderthals, dragging them into the cave, or whether they were scavenging on people already dead inside the cave.
A Neanderthal skull was found with a hole punched in it in 1939. At the time, palaeontologists speculated that the wound had been made by other Neanderthals.
That has now been dismissed, with the blame attributed to roving packs of cave hyenas, bone-crunching carnivores bigger and stronger than their modern counterparts, weighing more than 89kg. The discovery, by archaeologists from Lazio and the University of Tor Vergata in Rome, confirms the cave “as one of the most important sites in the world for the history of Neanderthals”, Italy’s culture ministry said.
Dario Franceschini, the culture minister, hailed it as “an extraordinary discovery which will excite interest worldwide”. Nine Neanderthal remains were found, eight dated to 50,000-68,000 years ago, while the oldest was 100,000 years. One was female.
The Guattari Cave yielded a hoard of fossilised bones, not just of Neanderthals but of the hyenas that were eating them, as well as rhinoceros, elephant and auroch – giant cattle extinct a few hundred years ago – and megaloceros, a giant deer also known as the Irish elk.
Neanderthals, the closest relatives of humans, flourished for 250,000 years but died out about 40,000 years ago.
It is unclear what killed them off, with theories ranging from climate change to homo sapien competition.
Recent research indicates that, far from being the hulking, heavy-browed brutes, Neanderthals were sophisticated and intelligent. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021)