Archaeologists have discovered the fossilized remains of nine Neanderthals thought to have been hunted and mauled to death by a pack of hyenas in a cave just outside Rome, the Italian Culture Ministry announced Saturday.
The fossilized bones, which included skullcaps and broken jawbones, were discovered in the Guattari Cave in San Felice Circeo in Italy’s Lazio region. They are believed to have belonged to seven adult males, one female, and one young boy.
Scientists from the Archaeological Superintendency of Latina and the University of Tor Vergata in Rome believe the bones come from different time periods. The oldest remains are thought to date from 90,000 to 100,000 years ago. The other eight Neanderthals’ remains are believed to date from 50,000 to 68,000 years ago.
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According to the ministry statement, many of the bones “show clear signs of gnawing,” which led experts to believe the Neanderthals were attacked by hyenas, which dragged them to the cave and consumed them, Deutsche Welle reported.
“Neanderthals were prey for these animals,” said Mario Rolfo, a professor of archaeology at Tor Vergata University, according to The Guardian. “Hyenas hunted them, especially the most vulnerable, like sick or elderly individuals.”
The researchers also found traces of hyenas alongside the human remains. They also found remains of rhinoceroses, giant deer, wild horses, and vegetables.
This is not the first time researchers have discovered fossils in the Guattari Cave. A Neanderthal skull was discovered there in 1939 by the anthropologist Alberto Carlo Blanc. Excavations of a new part of the cave that hadn’t been explored yet began in 2019.
“It is a spectacular find,” said Rolfo, according to The Guardian. “A collapse, perhaps caused by an earthquake, sealed this cave for more than 60,000 years, thereby preserving the remains left inside for tens of thousands of years.”
Culture Minister Dario Franceschini called the finding “an extraordinary discovery that will be the talk of the world,” according to the Associated Press.
Neanderthals are the closest known ancient relatives of humans. They inhabited Eurasia from about 400,000 years ago until a little after 40,000 years ago.