The evidence that is being dragged into an Italian cave system sheds new light on how Stone Age groups behaved in recent times, especially when exploring new terrains.
The cave of Bàsura in Toirano and its human and animal fossil remains have been known since the 1950s, with the first studies carried out by the Italian archaeologist Virginia Chiappella. In the current study, promoted by the Liguria Archaeological Heritage Office, researchers from Italy, Argentina and South Africa used multiple approaches to analyze human footprints and identified for the first time tracking behaviors about 14,000 years ago.
"In our study, we wanted to see how ancient humans explored this fascinating cave system," says first author Marco Romano, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. "Specifically, we set out to discover how many people entered the cave, whether they explored as individuals or as a group, their age, gender and what kind of route they took once inside the cave."
To answer these questions, the multidisciplinary team studied 180 tracks inside the cave, including footprints and hands on the clay-rich soil. They applied several modern dating methods, software that analyzes the structure of the tracks and different types of 3D modeling. "Together, these approaches allowed us to build a narrative of how humans entered and left the cave and their activities once they were inside," explains Romano.
The team determined that five individuals, including two adults, an adolescent of about 11 years old and two children of three and six years old, went barefoot into the cave and illuminated the path with wooden sticks. This suggests that young children were active members of the group during the Late Stone Age, even when performing seemingly dangerous activities.
The researchers reported the first evidence of tracing on footprints from a low tunnel, a route that was taken to access the inside of the cave. The anatomical details on the tracks suggest that the explorers went barefoot while navigating this road.
When analyzing the various tracks, the team discovered that some of them seem "unintentional" and are related to exploring only the cave, while others are more "intentional" and suggest that social or symbolic activities took place inside the internal chambers . "Therefore, hunter-gatherers may have been motivated by fun activities during the exploration, as well as simply by the need to find food," adds Romano.
"Together, our results show how a varied approach to studying the traces of our ancestors can provide detailed information about their behavior," concludes lead author Marco Avanzini, head of the department of geology at MUSE – Trento Science Museum, Italy . "We hope our approach is useful for painting similar images of how humans behaved in other parts of the world and for different periods of time."
Header image: in the cave of Bàsura, a preliminary study of fossil traces in bright leaves is made as a reference for more detailed analyzes. Credit: Isabella Salvador.
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