Altamura Man is the 400,000-year-old calcified remains of a hominid believed to be Homo heidelbergensis. In October 1993 Altamura Man was discovered by speleologists in a limestone cave, the Grotta di Lamalunga, near the city of Altamura, Italy.
The discovery happened in a karst borehole, formed by the action of running water on limestone that is composed of a complex system of caves next to an elongated valley secluded among hills, typical of the Altamura Murgia in Apulia. During the initial exploration phase some members of the Centro Altamurano Ricerche Speleologiche (CARS, the Centre for Speleologic Research) found the deposit of which the find was the main feature. On the hillside facing the valley there an access leads to the cave about 8 meters in depth. Through vertical shafts towards the surface that can be open or sealed for long or short periods, this type of cave has the ability to collect within it materials transported by the surface runoff of rainwater. This explains the presence of numerous remains, some of which quite voluminous, of ancient fauna.
The team led by Prof. Vittorio Pesce Delfino of the University of Bari proposed soon after the discovery a first estimate of the find, based only on morphology, which would have identified the human remains with a type preceding the most ancient types of classic Homo neanderthalensis and subsequent to the phases of Homo erectus. A ubsequent estimate of the dating involved an interval between 400,000 and 100,000 yearsbefore present, with the most likely values around 150-250,000 years ago.
The reference to an archaic version of Homo neanderthalensis also implies the find must show morphological features antedating the typical features of Homo neanderthalensis. Studies carried out keeping the find on the discovery site have verified this aspect of typical Neanderthal features (morphology of eye-sockets and upper orbit, osseous thickening, lack of canine fossa and presence of a clear edge on the maxilla, thickening of the occipital bone, feature of the mastoid process, existence of a retromolar space and profile of the upper margin of the ascending mandible ramus).
Some characteristics match features typical of Homo sapiens, among which in particular the convexity of the occipital bone scale. Interest besides the purely paleoanthropological lies in the natural majesty of the whole complex shown by the bones in the karstic setting that encased them, cementing them together and in the completeness of the skeleton.
The entire pre-existing knowledge of European Neanderthals came from numerous but fragmented finds, for example a skullcap in Germany, and skull fragments more or less voluminous but never complete in Greece, Italy, Spain and France, leaving anthropologists the difficult task of identifying the characteristics and compatibilities of the missing pieces. By contrast, in Altamura, all the various bone segments are perfectly preserved, which allows the examination of the morphological compatibility to shift from a problem of limited size of other finds to a more challenging problem of evolutionistic and morpho-functional interpretation.
In spite of this ideal situation, the Grotta di Lamalunga find presents exceptional problems in methodological study, due to the impossibility of removal of the bones from their limestone matrix with procedures that can guarantee undamaged recovery. To address this the “Sarastro” project has been carried out, setting the access to the discovery cave with the “field museum” approach, according to which a technological infrastructure allows scientific study to be done remotely, leaving the find totally undisturbed and protected in its original site.
Recently researchers associated with the University of Bari have carried out laser scans of the find, still preserved in situ, obtaining numerical maps that permitdimensional and morphological evaluations using mathematical models and procedures capable of obtaining the reproduction of physical copies of the find. At the same time three-dimensional videos have been taken. Results have been showed at a Bonn symposium "150 years of Neanderthal Discoveries – Early Europeans Continuity and Discontinuity" where Altamira Man has sparked lot of interest with specific requests of further development on the topic from UNESCO, the Wenner Gren Foundation and the American Museum of Natural History of New York and from the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics of Trieste.