Archaeology is a fascinating science. Advances in technology, such as carbon dating, have made this field all the more engrossing because remains can be more accurately dated. What’s more, these newer technologies can be used to reevaluate past discoveries.
In San Bernardino Cave in Italy, archaeologists had found a finger and two teeth in a rock. This finding occurred back in the 1980s and at first they believed these parts belonged to a Neanderthal. They’d thought this because the rock it was found in dated to Neanderthal times, roughly 28,000 to 59,000 years ago.
As physical anthropologist Stefano Benazzi pointed out, however, a time period is not enough for a definitive identification. The bones and teeth themselves had to be studied. Researchers had of course analyzed the remains, but were limited by the technology of the era.
Benazzi spearheaded the reanalysis. He and his team used micro-computed tomography (MCT) to view the shape of the tooth (a molar). MCT then creates virtual 3D model of the tooth. They also sampled for mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited through the maternal line. They carbon dated it and then lastly examined molecular traces in the tooth to deduce the person’s diet.
The results: the tooth belonged to a homo sapien, not a Neanderthal. Also, the human it belonged to was not an early human, but an Italian from the Middle Ages. The rock layer, which was dated to Neanderthal times, probably came to hold the remains because a rock wall was built at some time. This disturbed the naturally occurring rock layer.
Benazzi had multiple sources of evidence for this conclusion:
- The tooth’s shape was a bit ambiguous, but suggestive of a Homo sapiens‘ tooth.
- The DNA looked far more human than Neanderthal (remember Neanderthals aren’t humans, but relatives).
- The diet analysis revealed that the ratio of plants and meat was consistent with the diet of a medieval Italian. Notably the diet contained millet, which wasn’t introduced to Italy until 5,000 years ago or later.
- Finally, the radiocarbon dating really confirmed it didn’t belong to a Neanderthal. The tooth was dated to between 1420 and 1480.
Despite not being a Neanderthal, the discovery and the site are still of great interest. The cave has had a long and sometimes dark history. In the 15th century it served as a hermitage. The Catholic saint Bernardino of Siena may have lived there for a period of time.
A darker episode in its history occurred during the War of the League of Cambrai. Mercenary soldiers massacred the local people at the cave. Many of these locals had fled to the cave to escape the marauding soldiers, only to end up asphyxiating when pressed too deeply into the cave.
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