Until about 40,000 years ago, Homo sapiens shared the planet with our closest known relatives, the Neanderthals. These hominins, shorter and stockier than modern humans, inhabited areas from Western Europe to Central Asia, and archaeological finds reveal that the Neanderthals were remarkably resourceful. They made stone tools, hunted large animals, used fire, wore clothing, and engaged in some symbolic behaviors, possibly even burying their dead.
Despite these capabilities, the Neanderthals rapidly declined following a large migration of Homo sapiens into Europe. Scientists still debate whether competition with our species or changing environments was the primary cause of the extinction, but clues from Neanderthal sites could help answer this question and many more about our ancient human relatives.
In Italy, for instance, new details of Neanderthal life are being discovered in the caverns, shelters, and temporary encampments that they used. In Guattari Cave, near the coastal town of San Felice Circeo south of Rome, Neanderthal remains likely collected by spotted hyenas were recently discovered. Hyenas are known to hoard bones in their dens, and this ancient assemblage included seven Neanderthal men, one woman, and a young boy, leading researchers to conclude that an entire Neanderthal community could have once lived in the area.
This region of Italy, mountainous and rich in limestone caves, was suitable for providing shelter to ancestral human populations. The caves may have served as shelters to be revisited by perennial nomads, tracking prey according to the changing seasons.
In the past, researchers have relied on Neanderthal bones and fragments of tools or weapons to learn about these ancient human relatives. Today, however, experts have sophisticated tools to search Neanderthal dwellings for a wealth of information about their lives, even when the inhabitants' fossil remains are lacking.
With advances in technology, studying the caves inhabited by Neanderthals has become something like entering an abandoned house, full of traces of the past. Some of the most remarkable discoveries in recent years come from once-ignored details of Neanderthal debris. Hearth ashes reveal the use of fire, discarded animal bones preserve signs of butchery techniques, and the shapes of stone flakes hint at the sophistication of Neanderthal tool production. Chemically dated pigments have even suggested that Neanderthals made cave paintings.
Many mysteries remain about the Neanderthals, such as how frequently they engaged in symbolic behavior and what exactly led to their demise. But with new scientific discoveries revealing extraordinary details of Neanderthal life, we are learning more about our close human relatives than ever before.