How this ancient, emaciated human skull ended up in such a strange place


The skull as found inside the cave shaft.

The skull as found inside the cave shaft.
Picture: Belcastro et al, 2021, PLOS ONE

Archaeologists may have finally discovered how a 5,300-year-old skull ended up on the edge of a deep vertical cave in northern Italy.

The jawless skull was discovered in 2015 during exploratory work in a natural gypsum cave in northern Italy. It was found near the top of a vertical shaft, approximately 40 feet (12 meters) below a meandering cave complex and 85 feet (26 meters) below ground level.

That a skull was found in such a strange and isolated place was a complete surprise, to say the least. No other human remains were found in the immediate vicinity, nor any archaeological evidence. The location of the upturned skull, a natural cavity within the shaft, can only be accessed with special climbing equipment, and not a place that ancient people could have easily reached.

The location of the skull, as it was found inside an Italian cave.

The location of the skull, as it was found inside an Italian cave.
Picture: Belcastro et al, 2021, PLOS ONE

In 2017, archaeologists returned to the cave, known as Marcel Loubens, to document and recover the skull. New research published today in PLOS One provides a detailed analysis of the fossil, along with a possible explanation for how it ended up in such an unlikely location. The article was directed by archaeologist Maria Giovanna Belcastro from the University of Bologna in Italy.

As the authors speculate, the skull was likely transported to the platform by a number of natural geological processes, including the opening of sinkholes, landslides, and running water. The 5,300-year-old fossil apparently traveled through this cave system on its own.

For the study, the researchers “focused on investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of this individual, since the skull shows signs of some injuries that appear to be the result of [post-death] manipulation probably carried out to remove soft tissues “.

In fact, the skull, known as the Marcel Loubens skull, or MLC for short, has some scratches and cut marks that are consistent with the removal of meat, which was likely done as part of a death ritual, according to the authors. . It sounds strange, but the dispossession of deceased people was a relatively common prehistoric practice (even among Neanderthals), both in this part of the world and elsewhere.

As the anthropologist Alessia Zielo from the University of Padua explained in 2018 paper, there were very good reasons for the practice:

In the cultures of the past, the head was the seat of the soul, which contained the life force and possessed extraordinary qualities. It was also the profound symbol of a power closely linked to the concepts of life, death and fertility. Also, after death, the manipulation of the skulls showed that the physical remains of the deceased continued to play an important role in the community life to which he was directed. [they] belonged.

However, it is not a surprise that the skull was found in a cave. The use of these Italian caves as “natural cavities”, in the words of the researchers, was common during the first half of the third millennium BC. C., as evidenced by previous archaeological discoveries. The deceased individuals were taken inside these caves and buried, which is probably the situation here. In fact, radiocarbon dating of the skull dated it to between 3630 and 3380 BC. C., placing it within this period of time, known as the Eneolithic period of Italy, also known as the Copper Age.

For context, Ötzi the Iceman, that famous natural mummy found embedded in ice, lived sometime between 3400 and 3100 BC. C. Ötzi died in the Ötztal Alps, on the border between Austria and Italy, and approximately 345 km north of Marcel Loubens cave.

The skull, with several teeth still attached, was found to be in very good shape, which allowed for detailed analysis. Belcastro and his colleagues used microscopes and a CT scanner to study the fossil, in addition to analyzing a detailed 3D replica.

Multiple view of the skull.

Multiple view of the skull.
Picture: Belcastro et al, 2021, PLOS ONE

Detailed measurements of the skull were compared to a forensic database, suggesting it belonged to a woman who died between the ages of 24 and 35. The injuries likely occurred after death, as no signs of healing were detected. Some ocher was also detected, which could have something to do with the funeral ritual.

Other evidence suggests that this woman was not particularly healthy. She suffered from chronic anemia, such as an iron or vitamin B deficiency. She likely endured prolonged metabolic stress as a child, and appears to have had an endocrine disorder, as a dental scan revealed. In fact, the shift to Neolithic lifestyles was not all fun and games; new (agriculture-based) diets, new living conditions and denser living arrangements resulted in decreased health and increased exposure to unsanitary conditions, pathogens and parasites, according to the document.

The injuries to the skull do not appear to have been caused by animal behaviors, such as biting, gnawing, or scratching. What’s more, the detection of “irregularly thick calcite crusts” in the MLC fossil suggests that the skull began to move shortly after the woman rested, and by natural processes.

By conducting a geological review of the cave system and studying the skull, scientists have come up with a plausible explanation for the skull’s strange location.

Here’s the explanation: shortly after the woman rested, her skull came loose and rolled. Water and mud began to run through the cave, transporting the skull further down the slope of a sinkhole and into a deeper cave. The sinkhole’s ongoing activity sculpted the cave in its current form, landing the skull in its strange resting place.

Marcel Loubens Cave, it should be noted, is situated within a depression in the region known locally as “Dolina dell’Inferno”, which literally translates to “Hell’s Sink”. That sinkhole activity and ongoing geological processes transported the skull to such a strange location seems entirely reasonable.

We will likely never know the exact story of how this skull ended up inside that deep cave pit, but this study offers some remarkable finds based on a single skull found entirely outside of an archaeological context. Archaeologists, as this article shows, are adept at working with very little. In a way, it’s kind of like what they do.

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