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Updated: Jun 28

Analysis of remains of Neanderthals found in an Italian cave suggests most were killed by hyenas and then dragged back to their den.

Guattari Cave is southeast of Rome and is famous for a Neanderthal skull found there by archaeologist Alberto Carlo Blanc in 1939. The site had been sealed by a landslide, preserving what remained inside. Exploration of the cave deposits resumed in 2019 in an undisturbed part of the site, with spectacular results. The new excavations have unearthed the fragmentary fossilized bones of nine Neanderthals – seven adult males, one female, and one young boy. Eight of the individuals date to between 50,000 and 68,000 years ago. The oldest could be as much as 100,000 years old. However, these were not deliberate burials, but the apparent victims of hyenas.

Human remains were not all that were found. Bones of large mammals, including mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, giant deer, and cave bears, also aurochsen (wild oxen) and wild horses came from the same deposits. Many of the bones, whether human or not, had been gnawed by predators, probably mainly hyenas. The archaeologists suspect the hyenas killed the Neanderthals elsewhere, then dragged the bodies – and the other prey, to their den.

Yet the Guattari victims were probably eaten one-by-one over a long period of time. For the Neanderthals were tough, expert hunters, who were consummate stalkers –­ they had to be – for they had to hunt their prey at close quarters. Their success and survival depended on an intimate knowledge of local landscapes and of the habits of the animals who preyed on them and were also food. In total, if we include earlier finds, we have evidence of 11 Neanderthals. Despite the length in dates, this discovery serves as a vivid reminder of just how dangerous late Ice Age life could be, with hungry, watchful predators, all around...

Image: Jumbled bones at Guattari Cave. Photograph: Italian Ministry of Culture/AFP/Getty.