INGV researchers found in Rome evidence of the oldest Neanderthal presence in Europe
In 1929, hominin fossil remains were recovered at a depth of 6 metres from a gravel pit situated in Duke Grazioli’s estate at Sacco Pastore, a locality in the Roman countryside on the left bank of the river Aniene. In 1935, Alberto Carlo Blanc and Henri Breuil found, in the same site, another skull at a depth of 3 metres along with animal bones and Mousterian lithic artefacts, ascribed to the last interglacial stage.
The first skull, known as Saccopastore 1, belongs to a young female and the second skull, Saccopastore 2, appears to be that of an adult male. Both skulls exhibit Neanderthal features but differ from the Neanderthal type in the presence of the maxillary canine fossa and belong, therefore, to a variant form known as Saccopastore Man.
A study conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), in collaboration with palaeontologists from Sapienza, Tor Vergata and Roma Tre Universities, has established that the two skulls and the other hominin remains found in the sedimentary deposits of the Aniene Valley represent the oldest evidence of the presence of a Neanderthal community in Europe.
“Our work”, explained Fabrizio Marra, INGV researcher and author of the research published in Plos One, “started from where the researchers had arrived one and a half years ago, when they had demonstrated, through the correlation of depositional cycles with global sea-level variations, that the sedimentary deposits where the two skulls were found were much older than previously thought: 250,000 years, in contrast to the 80,000 – 125,000 years of previous estimation of age”.
We are dealing with a new glacial cycle: the fluvial sediments, in fact, were deposited following a sea-level rise during glacial termination 3, during what is called Isotopic Stage 7. Through the re-examination of animal fossil remains, the researchers were able to date the sedimentary deposits of Saccopastore. “The faunal data confirm that the Saccopastore sediments cannot be earlier than 200,000 years, in line with an estimated age of about 250,000 years”, added Marra.
Finally, through the analysis of several hominin bone fragments, faunal remains and the lithic artefacts found at Ponte Mammolo, Sedia del Diavolo, Casal de’ Pazzi and Monte delle Gioie, the researchers have established a precise age for the sedimentary deposits where the remains were found, corresponding to a time interval between 295,000 and 245,000 years ago.
“The discovery – added Marra – is important if we consider that the same age of 295,000 years has been established by British palaeontologists for the lithic artefacts found on the fluvial terrace of the Solent River, south of London, attributed to the earliest Neanderthal presence in Europe. At the same time, no human remains ascribable to the Neanderthal type older than 250,000 years have been found across Europe to date”.
“The remains found in the Aniene Valley, therefore, in the light of their direct association with the lithic artefacts, represent the oldest direct evidence of Neanderthal in Europe, opening up new scenarios for the possible stages of human evolution in Europe and for the migration flows across the Old Continent. Neanderthals, like their predecessors, may therefore have been the protagonists of a new anthropization of Europe occurred more than 250,000 years ago: passing through a hospitable Italy, at least from a climate point of view, where, in its capital, they would have established one of the first settlements”, concluded Marra.