Digging deep into Italian cave to solve mystery

CU Denver, CU Anschutz teams study what role Homo sapiens may have played in extinction of Neanderthals

October 30, 2016

Imagine spending your summer deep inside a cave in northwestern Italy working alongside an international team looking for an answer to a 100-year-old question: Why did man’s closest fossil relative, the Neanderthals, disappear from the earth?

That is exactly how Danielle Mercure, senior anthropology major, Rebeca Thornburg, senior anthropology major, and Thor Giese, a graduate student in anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, spent last July. “Between the absolutely beautiful scenery, the amazing food, and having deep conversations working with an international team, northwest Italy is a perfect place to work as an archaeologist,” Giese said.

Neanderthals went extinct, but how?

All modern human populations outside of Sub-Saharan Africa share 1 percent to 4 percent of their DNA with the Neanderthals. This shared DNA indicates that 60,000 years ago there were a handful of breeding events between the species. Around 20,000 years later, the Neanderthals completely disappeared. Understanding their extinction is a pressing question within paleoanthropology partly because researchers are unsure what role Homo sapiens played in the extinction.

Jamie Hodgkins and Caley Orr
Assistant Professors Caley Orr and Jamie Hodgkins

Assistant Professors Jamie Hodgkins, PhD, from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver, and Caley Orr, PhD, from the School of Medicine at University of Colorado Anschutz, are examining the history between the species. These researchers and their team of collaborators and students are excavating a site called Arma Veirana, which is the first new Paleolithic site in that region of Italy in more than 20 years. Evidence found at the cave, including stone tools, animal remains, and charcoal, documents the transition between Neanderthal and modern human populations. The team hopes to determine whether these two types of humans overlapped in time.

Eight universities from four countries are working on the project, which is funded by the National Geographic Society, CU Denver and Washington University in St. Louis.

Lasers help locate evidence

During the month-long excavation, students worked alongside a diverse group that spoke equal parts English, French and Italian. “Everyone was very welcoming. It almost felt like a second home,” said Mercure. Mercure’s excavation experience has been mostly from another dig in South Africa, where Hodgkins also conducts research and where they developed many of the methods and procedures used in Italy.

CU Denver anthropology professors perform their own research and use that experience to prepare students for the real world. “These classes definitely get you prepared for field work,” Mercure said. “I think we have a really good department. The faculty is amazing and very personable.”

Excavators at Arma Veirana
Excavators at Arma Veirana working with a total station
Excavators at the mouth of the cave
Excavators working with a total station at the mouth of the cave

Giese spent his summer working in Italy with a surveying tool known as a total station. The station uses a laser to locate and record objects like stone tools, ochre, an iron oxide used as a pigment, and various animal remains in three-dimensional space. “It’s really cool because you’re putting this into a computer program and you can literally get a 3D image of the distribution of the artifacts in real time,” Giese said. “The geologists can look at that information and be able to tell if it was deposited naturally or if it washed down in a flood.”

Part of the funding for the excavation went toward a photo-realistic 3D model of the cave and the surrounding valley in Italy. “I wanted to reconstruct how hunter-gatherers were utilizing this cave site,” said Hodgkins. “When we know more about the environment, we can reconstruct what animals were living there, and where humans hunted and found water.”

Photography and videography by Emily Zheng and Dominique Meyer- CISA3/CHEI at UC San Diego. Supported by the National Geographic Society. This prototype video was created with a combination of laser mapping of the terrain and hundreds of thousands of photographs. The final result is a 3D map that is photo-realistic and accurate up to a millimeter.

Living the dream

On days off, students got the opportunity to explore a nearby town and the surrounding countryside. “One weekend, four of us ran the 17 kilometers from the site to the Mediterranean. It’s beautiful,” said Giese. “The trail follows the ancient salt trade route from inland Europe to the Mediterranean used during Roman times.”

[cucalloutbox align=”right” color=”” class=”” size=””]Are you a student who is considering studying, volunteering or doing research abroad?  Remember to pre-register online or contact the Office of Global Education at 303.315.2288.[/cucalloutbox]

The CU Denver team of researchers stayed in a rented villa, enjoyed locally sourced food, worked with a diverse group of professionals and was able to put the entire experience on a resume. While they don’t currently have funding to return next summer, Hodgkins is applying to four different grant agencies in hopes to continue the work in the near future.