How This Ancient, Defleshed Human Skull Ended Up in Such a Strange Spot

How This Ancient, Defleshed Human Skull Ended Up in Such a Strange Spot
The skull as it was found inside the cave shaft. (Image: Belcastro et al, 2021, PLOS ONE)
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Archaeologists may have finally figured out how a 5,300-year-old skull ended up on the ledge of a deep vertical cave shaft in northern Italy.

The skull, with no jaw, was discovered in 2015 during exploratory work at a natural gypsum cave in northern Italy. It was found near the top of a vertical shaft, approximately 12 metres below a complex of meandering caves and 26 metres below ground level.

That a skull should be found in such a strange and isolated spot came as a complete surprise, to say the least. No other human remains were found in the immediate vicinity, nor any archaeological evidence. The location of the upturned skull — a natural cavity within the shaft — can only be accessed with special climbing equipment, and not a spot that ancient peoples could have easily reached.

The location of the skull, as it was found inside an Italian cave.  (Image: Belcastro et al, 2021, PLOS ONE) The location of the skull, as it was found inside an Italian cave. (Image: Belcastro et al, 2021, PLOS ONE)

In 2017, archaeologists returned to the cave, known as Marcel Loubens, to document and retrieve the skull. New research published today in PLOS One provides a detailed analysis of the fossil, along with a possible explanation for how it ended up in such an unlikely spot. The paper was led by archaeologist Maria Giovanna Belcastro of the University of Bologna in Italy.

As the authors speculate, the skull was likely transported to the shelf by a series of natural geological processes, including the opening of sinkholes, mudslides, and rushing water. The 5,300-year-old fossil, it would seem, travelled through this cave system on its own accord.

For the study, the researchers were “focused on investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of this individual, since the cranium shows signs of some lesions that appear to be the results of [post-death] manipulation probably carried out to remove soft tissues.”

Indeed, the skull, known as the Marcel Loubens cranium, or MLC for short, has some scratches and cut marks on it that are consistent with the removal of flesh, which was likely done as part of a death ritual, according to the authors. Sounds bizarre, but the defleshing of deceased individuals was a relatively common prehistoric practice (even among Neanderthals), both in this part of the world and elsewhere.

As anthropologist Alessia Zielo from the University of Padua explained in a 2018 paper, there were some very good reasons for the practice:

In the cultures of the past, the head was meant as the seat of the soul, which contained the life force, and which possessed extraordinary qualities. It was also the profound symbol of a power closely linked to the concepts of life, death and fertility. Also, after death, the manipulation of the skulls showed that the physical remains of the deceased continued to play an important role in the community life to which [they] belonged.

That the skull was found in a cave, however, is not a surprise. The use of these Italian caves as “natural cavities,” in the words of the researchers, was common during the first half of the 3rd millennium BCE, as evidenced by prior archaeological discoveries. Deceased individuals were brought inside these caves and laid to rest, which is likely the situation here. Indeed, radiocarbon dating of the cranium dated it to between 3630 and 3380 BCE, placing it within this timeframe, known as Italy’s Eneolithic period, also known as the Copper Age.

For context, Ötzi the Iceman — that famous natural mummy found embedded in ice — lived at some point between 3400 and 3100 BCE. Ötzi died in the Ötztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy, and approximately 345 km north of Marcel Loubens cave.

The skull, with several teeth still attached, was found in remarkably good shape, allowing for a detailed analysis. Belcastro and her colleagues used microscopes and a CT scanner to study the fossil, in addition to analysing a detailed 3D replica.

Multiple view of the cranium.  (Image: Belcastro et al, 2021, PLOS ONE) Multiple view of the cranium. (Image: Belcastro et al, 2021, PLOS ONE)

Detailed measurements of the skull were cross-referenced with a forensics database, suggesting it belonged to a female who died between the ages of 24 and 35. The lesions likely happened after death, as no signs of healing were detected. Some ochre was also detected, which might have something to do with the funerary ritual.

Other evidence suggests this woman wasn’t particularly healthy. She suffered from chronic anaemia, like an iron or vitamin B deficiency. She likely endured prolonged metabolic stress as a child, and she seems to have had an endocrine disorder, as a dental analysis revealed. Indeed, the shift to neolithic lifestyles wasn’t all fun and games; new diets (based on agriculture), new living conditions, and denser living arrangements resulted in diminished health and increased exposure to unhygienic conditions, pathogens, and parasites, according to the paper.

The lesions on the skull don’t appear to have been caused by animal behaviours, such as biting, gnawing, or scratching. What’s more, the detection of “irregularly thick calcite crusts” on the MLC fossil suggests the skull began to move shortly after the woman was laid to rest, and by natural processes.

By conducting a geological review of the cave system, and by studying the skull, the scientists have devised a plausible explanation for the skull’s strange location.

Here’s the explanation: Shortly after the woman was laid to rest, her skull came loose and rolled away. Water and mud began to rush through the cave, transporting the cranium further down through the slope of a sinkhole and into a deeper cave. Ongoing sinkhole activity sculpted the cave into its current form, landing the skull onto its strange resting spot.

Marcel Loubens cave, it should be pointed out, is situated within a depression in the region known locally as “Dolina dell’Inferno,” which literally translates to “Hell’s Sinkhole.” That sinkhole activity and ongoing geological processes transported the skull to such an odd spot seems wholly reasonable.

We’ll likely never know the exact story of how this cranium ended up inside that deep cave shaft, but this study offers some remarkable findings based on a single skull found completely outside an archaeological context. Archaeologists, as this paper shows, are very adept at working with very little. In a way, it’s kind of what they do.