It was found in 2015, an isolated clue to a macabre mystery that was set in motion thousands of years ago.
This ancient puzzle consisted of a single piece: a solitary human skull, discovered on its own with no other skeletal remains around it, resting inside a cave in Bologna, Italy, in the center of a cavernous depression the locals call Dolina dell’Inferno (Hell sink).
It was not easy to find.
The well-concealed skull, lacking the lower jaw, could only be reached by traversing a difficult cave passage called the Meander della cattiveria (Labyrinth of Malice), and then ascending a vertical axis at a height of 12 meters (39 feet), where the skull rested on a rocky ledge.
Due to the difficulty of accessing the site, cavers were unable to retrieve the skull until 2017, at which point researchers had the opportunity to study this mysterious ancient specimen.
The solitary skull turned out to be really old, with radiocarbon dating suggesting that the skull belonged to an individual who lived sometime between 3630 and 3380 BC. C., placing them within the archaeological context of the early Eneolithic period (also known as Chalcolithic) of the region.
Other human remains from the Eneolithic have been found in the general area; not in the sinkhole of hell, but in a rock shelter approximately 600 meters (almost 2,000 feet) from the cave in which the skull was found.
So the larger context makes some sense. But how exactly did this lone skull stray so far from its eneolytic counterparts, perched high on a ledge, but buried within a malicious labyrinth of a cave, and hidden at a depth of 26 meters (85 feet) below the ground? ?
According to the anthropologist Maria Giovanna Belcastro of the University of Bologna, first author of a new analysis of the unusual fate of the skull, several factors were at play.
Belcastro’s team investigated the skull, which the team said likely came from a young woman, between 24 and 35 years old.
Evidence of various injuries to the sides of the skull is likely the result of human manipulations of the skull at the time of the woman’s death, the researchers suggest, perhaps reflecting ritual acts to remove the flesh from the skull, as part of a custom. mortuary.
Other injuries to the skull, some of which are believed to have been suffered ante mortem (before death), may be due to an injury that killed the woman, and other marks could be evidence of a type of medical treatment administered by her people.
Regarding how the skull became so detached from the rest of its skeleton, the researchers hypothesize that the skull may have been intentionally or accidentally removed from the rest of the body, before rolling or being pushed across the ground by streams of water or mud, until somehow he reached the edge of the sinkhole of hell, and finally fell into the depression.
Over time, water infiltration into the sump could have dissolved the gypsum deposits within the cave, creating the vertical axis next to the skull’s safe resting place.
“The reactivated cave passage began to evolve downward, forming a lateral sinking stream and excavating the labyrinth below,” the researchers write in their paper.
“This new reactivation was able to entrench approximately 12 meters of plaster, connecting to the descending base level.”
Various sediments lodged within the cranial cavity offer some support for this argument, suggesting that matter got stuck inside the skull during the flow of water or debris as the skull made its unlikely and chaotic journey into the cave. Signs of other trauma to the skull suggest many blows along the way.
This hypothetical interpretation is not what necessarily happened, of course, which is something we can never know for sure. But as the researchers point out, of all the parts of a human skeleton, the shape of a skull makes it the most suitable for running away.
“If the skeleton was intact at the time of this sequence of events, other skeletal elements, of different shape and size, could have remained stuck elsewhere and scattered during transport,” the authors suggest.
“The skull would have rolled more easily than other parts of the skeleton in a stream of water and the debris flow … During its decomposition and those dynamic phases, it would have filled with sediment. Therefore, it would have reached the cave and it would have stopped on the plateau where it was found. “
Findings are reported in Plus one.