Arma Veirana Cave
Arma Veirana Cave
One of the enduring mysteries of paleoanthropology is why early modern humans were able to colonize the world while their archaic contemporaries, the Neandertals, disappeared. Did modern humans and archaic hominins occupy the same territories at the same times and if so, how were their niches partitioned? To what extent did they hybridize? Were archaic hominins outcompeted by modern humans and thus driven to extinction, or were environmental conditions the primary cause of their demise? Recent insights from ancient DNA and new archaeological discoveries indicate that the processes underlying “modern human origins” were complex and may have varied considerably from region to region.
Italy’s Pleistocene record preserves important archaeological sites, several of which have produced archaic hominin fossils (including both pre-Neandertals and Neandertals). Moreover, it has recently been recognized that some of the earliest modern human sites in Europe are found within the country’s borders. As such, Italian sites are crucial for understanding the population dynamics of modern humans as they dispersed from Africa across the European continent. Yet, very few sites in Italy, and Europe broadly, contain an uninterrupted archaeological record spanning the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, meaning that sites rarely preserve the data most critical to testing hypotheses about the evolutionary processes that governed the appearance of modern humans in Europe and the concomitant disappearance of Neandertals.
In this context, Arma Veirana is a critically important site that holds great potential to further our understanding of the population transition from Neandertals to modern humans. Our preliminary excavations suggest that the cave preserves a continuous record of occupation with no obvious discontinuity or sterile layer between the Middle and Upper Paleolithic. Moreover, preliminary chronological analysis has yielded an extraordinary result: radiocarbon dates for the Mousterian (Middle Paleolithic) deposits at Arma Veirana (~41,500 years before present) are statistically indistinguishable from deposits at the nearby Protourignacian (early Upper Paleolithic) site complex of Balzi Rossi. This appears to be the best archaeological evidence yet discovered of contemporaneous Neandertals and modern humans living in close proximity. Separated by less than 100 km, Balzi Ross is found near sea level along the Mediterranean coast, while Arma Veirana is a montane site found in the Maritime Alps. Thus, the sites are located in ecologically distinct but geographically adjacent habitats, strongly suggesting that if Neandertals and modern humans overlapped chronologically in the region, the mountain-coast dichotomy acted to differentiate the niches of these two hominins. If true, Liguria will provide an exemplary “laboratory” for examining ecological factors that influenced human and Neandertal population dynamics. Continued excavations at Arma Veirana will enable 1) refinement of the stratigraphy and chronology of cultural shifts (i.e., precisely dating the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition at the site); and 2) the examination of the (possibly different) behavioral adaptations of Neandertals and modern humans to mountain living.