December 2, 2011

In the Beginning: The Dawn of Humankind in Southern Italy

Neanderthal skull, American Museum of Natural History
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
By Niccolò Graffio

“The beginning is half of the whole.” – Plato: Laws; v. c. 360 BC

Articles I have written in the past on the history of Southern Italy have chiefly dealt with events surrounding the founding of the Kingdom of Sicily by King Roderigo II in 1130 AD and what followed.  To truly understand and appreciate how we as an ethnos arrived at where we are today, it is necessary to go back much further in time.  We as a people are the end product of countless millennia of amalgamating numerous peoples into one.  Like ingredients in a stew, each added something unique to the mix, and each in turn, is worthy of mention.

The true history of Southern Italy begins, not just before the founding of the Regno, but long before the beginning of civilization itself.  Paleontological evidence indicates the first members of the genus Homo entered what is now Southern Italy during the period of time we call the Lower Paleolithic (c. 2.5 million BC-300,000 BC).

These hominids, members of the species Homo erectus, left numerous stone axes at the site of Monte Poggiolo near Forli in Northern Italy roughly 850,000 years ago.  A femur of H. erectus found at a site in Venosa, Basilicata in Southern Italy has been dated to 500,000 years ago.  Interestingly, deposits on this bone indicate the individual suffered from yaws, a disease scientists believe erectids took with them to Europe when they left Africa. 

Much later, another hominid species, Homo heidelbergensis, wound up in Southern Italy, supplanting the earlier erectids with their larger brains and superior tool technology.  One of the most spectacular pieces of evidence of Homo heidelbergensis habitation in Southern Italy can be found in Roccamonfina Regional Park just to the north of Naples in the province of Caserta.  

Here, along the slopes of the now-extinct Roccamonfina volcano can be found the famous “Devil’s footprints”.  These are 56 footprints probably made by 3-6 individuals that were laid down in the volcano’s lava sometime between 385,000-325,000 years ago.  Scientists believe, owing to the size of the footprints and their being in lava, that they belonged to children who were fleeing an eruption.

Most archaeologists believe H. heidelbergensis was the progenitor of two later human species: Homo neanderthalensis (i.e. Neanderthal man) and Homo sapiens, the latter being the species to which we belong.  Whether in fact it is proper to call Neanderthals a separate species of humans (as opposed to being merely a subspecies of H. sapiens) has always been a bone of contention among archaeologists and anthropologists.  The recent revelation that fully 1-4% of DNA in the gene pool of modern Eurasians may be of Neanderthal origin certainly lends weight to the latter theory.
Homo neanderthalensis, American Museum of Natural History
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
In any event, evidence establishes the presence of Neanderthals in Southern Italy by the dawn of the Middle Paleolithic (300,000-30,000 years ago).  Southern Italy on more than one occasion became a refuge for Neanderthals, mainly due to the fact its location allowed it to avoid the advance of ice sheets during the last two glacial periods. 

One problem among researchers who study our ancestors is what became of the Neanderthals.  Various hypotheses have been put forward, but since the fossil record is fragmentary at best, the truth may never been known with a certainty.  It has long been believed the European Early Modern Humans (EEMH) or H. sapiens who later invaded Europe were more intelligent than Neanderthals, and therefore more resourceful.  In the Darwinian struggle for existence this superior intelligence gave them an evolutionary advantage. 

Science corrects itself constantly as new evidences emerge.  Researchers have long believed Neanderthals, who created the so-called Mousterian culture (300,000 BP to 30,000 BP) of stone tools, were incapable of producing any new technologies without first coming into contact with early modern humans.  Several years ago, however, archaeologists announced the discovery of evidence (in the form of some teeth and part of a skull) that would seem to indicate the so-called Uluzzian culture of Southern Italy (30,000 BP) was the independent creation of a holdout population of Neanderthals.
Neanderthal skeleton, American Museum of Natural History
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
The news set the world of Archaeology abuzz.  The Neanderthals of Southern Italy were surrounded on three sides by water and by another, more primitive culture of Neanderthals to the north (proto-Padanians, perhaps?).  The relics associated with the Uluzzian culture showed definite refinement over earlier Mousterian ones.  Philo-Neanderthals held them up as “proof” Neanderthals were not dim-witted brutes as they were so often portrayed but were in fact intelligent beings capable of creating new tools to suit their needs.

More recent evidence, though, casts doubt on that hypothesis.  Chronometric analysis of two deciduous teeth done at the University of Oxford shows the teeth (dated between 45,000-43,000 BP) did not belong to Neanderthals as previously believed, but belonged, in fact, to European Early Modern Humans.

While this may be a letdown to Neanderthal-lovers, it created a new form of excitement, for if Oxford’s analysis holds true it means the earliest modern humans discovered to date in Europe have been found in Southern Italy!  The researchers involved were also quick to point out that even without the Uluzzian culture to call their own, Neanderthals were undoubtedly a lot more intelligent than most people have been led to believe.  Though they have long since vanished as a distinct people, their genes survive in us.  So in a sense, a part of their legacy lives on.

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