Technological progress in the virtual field of paleoanthropology was key when he described the first human remains, known as Altamura man, one of the most enigmatic Neanderthal fossils in the world.
The result of this study were published in the journal ‘Biology Communications’, a study led by Antonio Profico, a researcher at the University of Pisa (Italy) and with the participation of Costantino Buzi, a postdoctoral researcher at the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution. (IPHES-CLOSE).
Altamura’s skull morphology fits neatly within Neanderthal variability, although it retains features that occur in early European specimens. Some of these features have never been documented before, allowing the researchers to suggest that the ancient features preserved in this fossil may have been caused by the geographical isolation of the first Neanderthal inhabitants in southern Italy.
The Neanderthal remains of Altamura are perhaps one of the most famous in the world, both for the characteristics of the place where they are found, and for the excellent state of preservation. Images of a man’s skull surrounded by stalagmite formations are known. His story is very surprising, which gives it a special relevance.
In 1993 a group of speleologists was exploring a karst system near Altamura, a city of about 70,000 inhabitants in southern Italy. In one of these caves, specifically in the Lamalunga cave, and behind a vertical conduit descending more than 15 meters, they found three corridors. The one in the center was about 20 meters long.
When they illuminated this chamber, they realized that the walls were full of animal bones trapped between stalactites and stalagmites. At the end of the corridor they came to a chamber where, in the middle of a large coralloid calcite column (small coral speleothems), a human skull stood out.
The scientists who followed the speleologists descending into the cave took some pictures and videos and interpreted it as an adult man who could have fallen through a vertical duct in which a large number of dead animals had been piled up. He was probably captured and starved to death.
At that time they did not know what it was like or what age it corresponded to, but they saw that in addition to the skull, among the concretions, there were several bones of the individual himself. They baptized these remains as Altamura the man.
For many years these human remains were forgotten, since the difficulty of extracting them did not enable their study. At first it was thought that these human remains correspond to Homo heidelbergensis, but in 2015 researchers from the Sapienza University of Rome were able to access the cavity and with the help of a robotic arm managed to extract a specimen of the right shoulder blade. .
The results of this study, including his mitochondrial DNA, were published in the Journal of Human Evolution and determined that he was indeed a Neanderthal. His dating, between 130-172 Ka, places him among the oldest Neanderthals known to date.
Virtual archeology in a time capsule
Altamura’s Neanderthal bones remained in this cavity throughout these years. The difficult access to the cavity and the technical problems that resulted from its physical extraction led researchers to develop virtual techniques to analyze the remains without causing conservation problems.
In fact, through technological advances in the field of virtual paleoanthropology, researchers have been able to virtually recover the Neanderthal skull of Altamura man.
For this, the scientists acquired both parts of the exposed skull with separate digital techniques: the front part directly visible with laser sensors, and the other middle through the combined use of photogrammetry, since it is only accessible through a telescopic aperture. beyond the skeleton of the reeds of the columns.
After each part has been obtained, through a computer process, both parts could be combined according to other comparative reference models, such as Calvariae 5 Sima de los Huesos in Atapuerca.
According to Profico, “the pieces of the cave had no joining points, which forced us to develop a new method to assemble them. So we decided to join the two halves of the separated parts of the skull almost the same”. The state of preservation of the Altamura skull is so exceptional that parts as thin as the nasal bones have been preserved.
For his part, Buzi explains: “The man from Altamura represents a unique example: he is a Neanderthal power (we do not know of other representatives of this kind) the bone is disarticulated and covered with layers of calcite, which favored its formation. exceptional preservation of even fragile bone structures, such as those inside the opening of the nose.”
Light on the evolution of Neanderthals
The description and quantitative study of the skull reveals that the morphology of this important finding fits with Neanderthals variability, showing some less characteristic, this is older than other European fossils dated between 300 and 40 thousand years ago.
Some of these characteristics have never been observed in Neanderthal Man, which suggests that their origin can be traced back to the long periods of isolation of human populations in the ecological refuges represented by the southern regions of the Italian peninsula.
According to Giorgio Manzi, the coordinator of the research, “based on ours, we think that the Altamura skull can illuminate the discussion about the evolution of Neanderthals. The shape of the skull of Altamura man falls into the variability of the species. Extinct, sharing characteristics with other classic specimens, but at the same time it shows affinities with ancient Neanderthals, such as those from Saccopastore , here in Rome-, or even more ancient ones, such as the skull of Ceprano (southern Lazio), which goes back to about four hundred thousand years”.
With the same lines, the scientist Fabio Di Vincenzo concludes “the closest similarity found with previous findings in the line of evolution of Neanderthals, such as Calvariae V from Sima de los Huesos, dated 430,000 years ago, we quite noticed this similarity” in the expression of various features of the skull, as well as in the general morphology of the bones occipitalis, the anatomy of which can be accurately estimated by Altamura.
Profico, A., Buzi, et al. al: ‘Virtual excavation and analysis of an early Neanderthal skull from Altamura (Italy)’. ‘Biology of Communication’ (2023)