In 1993, cave explorers entered a long, narrow tunnel at the Lamalunga Cave near the town of Altamura in southern Italy. At the far end, they found an upside-down human skull fused into the rock alongside a large collection of other human bones.
The skull’s jutting brow was covered in a layer of pearl-like coralloid, calcium deposits otherwise known as cave popcorn. Much of the remains were covered in some form of the mineral that had leached down from the surrounding limestone.
Today, scientists believe the person (the “Altamura Man”) had fallen through a sinkhole in the surrounding limestone karst and never made it back out again. He starved to death, and the calcium deposits, along with stalactites and stalagmites, had sealed him into a calcified tomb.
In the early going, no one knew if the skeleton had belonged to an early Homo sapiens human or Neanderthal, and given its remote location, serious scientific study was slow to come. In 2009, a group of researchers received permission from Italian authorities to remove a piece of its right shoulder blade in an attempt to understand who this unlucky person had been.
When the team – which hailed from universities in Italy, Spain and Australia – examined the full skeleton, they found it to be remarkably intact and mostly visible from the tunnel despite the rampant calcification.
The remains rested in what came to be called the “Apse of Man,” named for the large domed area of a church that rises above the altar. Behind the Apse, scientists say, lies an unreachable “back chamber” that contains a few of the man’s bones.
The team initially tried to date the shoulder blade by extracting its collagen, but they couldn’t find enough to pass through an accelerator mass spectrometer.
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In 2011, they began to pursue a different strategy and collected calcium deposits from bones still in the cave, along with a stalagmite already found broken. The researchers aimed to date the skeleton by first dating the deposits, which had dripped onto the bones over thousands of years.
Using uranium thorium dating, they tested the calcium and estimated that the Altamura Man was between 130,000 years and 172,000 years old, placing it among the oldest Neanderthal fossil ever found. A further examination of the set classified them as belonging to an “Early Neanderthal” with a mixture of archaic and later features.
Attempts at DNA analysis using the shoulder blade fell short of the researchers’ hopes, but tests did confirm that the Altamura Man was a Neanderthal.
For a 2020 study, scientists snaked a videoscope into the skull’s mouth and estimated, based on tooth wear, that the Altamura Man had been a younger adult at the time of his death. Overall, he’d suffered from poor oral health and had lost at least two teeth during his lifetime, which was unusual for Neanderthals, who appear to have mostly enjoyed healthy teeth.
The skeleton continues to attract study as the most complete Neanderthal fossil yet found, even though much of it remains encased in rock.
In March 2023, a paper attempted to digitally reconstruct the skull, which possessed both newer (in Neanderthal terms) and archaic features, putting it at odds with its own time period.
The Altamura represents, “the remnant of an archaic population, which was probably not in simple continuity with the Neanderthal lineage,” the paper says.
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