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Finding Clues About Neanderthal Lives

About 50 years ago in a small town north of Verona, Italy, a group of municipal workers who were trying to build a road found something unexpected. While cutting into a hillside to prepare to pour asphalt, they saw a unique rock structure on the hill’s face. A team of archaeologists later came and found a painting of a human-like figure, which was determined to be the oldest evidence of painting in Europe. The cave itself was believed to show signs of more than 50,000 years of civilization.

Around the same time, Marco Peresani was born. Today, fifty years later, Peresani, who became an archaeologist at the University of Ferrara, is showing us around the cave at Fumane—the same archaeological hot spot just north of Verona that has fueled research for decades.

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Peresani looks every bit the Italian version of Harrison Ford—or at least his archaeological alias, Indiana Jones. His accent is thick and his eagerness is genuine. While we prepared our cameras, a group of students was wandering around the cave. “When they’re done, we’ll get inside, and you’ll see,” he says smiling. “There’s a lot we have learned from looking at the rock.”

What he means is that over the course of time—long stretches of time, like 1,000 or 5,000 years—rock forms into layers. Something happens on the ground, then a rock slide covers it up, then something new happens, which is again covered. It’s not a great way to preserve human remains, but the occasional animal bones or wall paintings uncovered in the layers can give a clear picture of how people lived that long ago. People as in Neanderthals, an extinct relative of today’s Homo sapiens.

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Sometimes the layers show paint that the Neanderthals used. Other times they show remnants of charcoal from fires that burned out thousands of years ago. In the lab, forensics can illuminate exactly what kind of wood produced those ashes.

Recently, Peresani and his team made a new discovery, fueled by a grant from the National Geographic Society. In some of the thinnest layers of rock, they uncovered almost 200 bird bones, which signaled that the Neanderthals who inhabited the cave had known how to use birds, both for food and to adorn themselves with feathers. To verify the findings and illuminate what the ancient people could do with the birds, Peresani conducts what he calls “experimental butcherings.” He and his assistants occasionally take birds similar to those that lived in a particular time period (who were already killed by accident) and dismantle them using tools Neanderthals would have had.

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For a cave with such a deep connection to the past, the most surprising part is that it’s not that big. After about two hours, we had seen most of it and Peresani asked us if we had any other questions. Just one more, I told him. People have been studying this cave for half a century. How much more is there to learn here? He hesitated, looking for the words in Italian and then translating them in his head into English. “It is very easy for me to be here ten more years,” he said. But I think in truth it is unlimited.”