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Traces of crawling in Italian cave give clues to ancient humans' social behavior

May 14, 2019

Evidence of crawling in an Italian cave system sheds new light on how late Stone Age humans behaved as a group, especially when exploring new grounds, says a study published today in eLife.

The cave of Bàsura at Toirano and its human and animal fossil traces have been known since the 1950s, with the first studies conducted by Italian archaeologist Virginia Chiappella. In the current study, promoted by the Archaeological Heritage Office of Liguria, researchers from Italy, Argentina and South Africa used multiple approaches to analyse the human traces and identified for the first time crawling behaviours from around 14,000 years ago.

"In our study, we wanted to see how ancient humans explored this fascinating cave system," says first author Marco Romano, Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. "Specifically, we set out to discover how many people entered the cave, whether they explored as individuals or as a group, their age, gender and what kind of route they took once inside the cave."

To answer these questions, the multidisciplinary team studied 180 tracks from within the cave, including foot and handprints on the clay-rich floor. They applied various modern dating methods, software that analyses the structure of the tracks, and different types of 3D modelling. "Together, these approaches allowed us to construct a narrative of how the humans entered and exited the cave, and their activities once they were inside," Romano explains.

The team determined that five individuals, including two adults, an adolescent of about 11 years old, and two children of three and six years old, entered the cave barefoot and illuminated the way using wooden sticks. This suggests that young children were active group members during the late Stone Age, even when carrying out apparently dangerous activities.

The researchers reported the first evidence of crawling in footprints from a low tunnel - a route that was taken to access the inner part of the cave. Anatomical details in the footprints suggest that the explorers went bare-legged as they navigated this pathway.

When analysing the various handprints, the team found that some of them appear 'unintentional' and relate to exploring the cave only, while others are more 'intentional' and suggest that social or symbolic activities took place within the inner chambers. "Hunter-gatherers may therefore have been driven by fun activities during exploration, as well as simply the need to find food," Romano adds.

"Together, our results show how a varied approach to studying our ancestors' tracks can provide detailed insights on their behaviour," concludes senior author Marco Avanzini, head of the geology department at MUSE - Trento Museum of Science, Italy. "We hope our approach will be useful for painting similar pictures of how humans behaved in other parts of the world and during different periods of time."
-end-
Reference

The paper 'A multidisciplinary approach to a unique Palaeolithic human ichnological record from Italy (Bàsura Cave)' can be freely accessed online at https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.45204. Contents, including text, figures and data, are free to reuse under a CC BY 4.0 license.

Accompanying photographs and a video are available to download here: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/31e3exn3x3zgjvf/AADdorg8sEaBT4oklPwpWOpka?dl=0

Author contacts for more information:

Marco Romano, lead author marco.romano.univ@gmail.com

Marco Avanzini, senior author Marco.Avanzini@muse.it

Elisabetta Starnini, multidisciplinary project coordinator elisabetta.starnini@unipi.it

Fabio Negrino, archaeologist fabio.negrino@unige.it

Media contact

Emily Packer, Senior Press Officer
eLife
eLifesciences.org">e.packer@eLifesciences.org
01223 855373

About eLife

eLife is a non-profit organisation inspired by research funders and led by scientists. Our mission is to help scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science. We publish important research in all areas of the life and biomedical sciences, including Evolutionary Biology, which is selected and evaluated by working scientists and made freely available online without delay. eLife also invests in innovation through open-source tool development to accelerate research communication and discovery. Our work is guided by the communities we serve. eLife is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, the Wellcome Trust and the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. Learn more at eLifesciences.org/about">https://eLifesciences.org/about.

To read the latest Evolutionary Biology research published in eLife, visit eLifesciences.org/subjects/evolutionary-biology">https://eLifesciences.org/subjects/evolutionary-biology.

eLife

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