The Altamura Man is a partially preserved fossil of the genus Homo. The skeleton was first thought to be an example of Homo heidelbergensis and was also described as having characteristics of Homo neanderthalensis. It has more recently been dated to 130,000 years ago and classified as an archaic Homo sapiens with some Neanderthal features. It was found embedded in rock and has been left in situ. It was discovered in October 1993 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 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 subsequent estimate of the dating involved an interval between 400,000 and 100,000 years before 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 permit dimensional 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 shown at a Bonn symposium "150 years of Neanderthal Discoveries – Early Europeans Continuity and Discontinuity" where Altamura 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.
The research has restarted by a new team composed of Giorgio Manzi of the Museum of Anthropology at the Sapienza University of Rome, David Caramelli of the Department of Evolutionary Biology at University of Florence, Marcello Piperno of the Faculty of Humanities of the Sapienza University of Rome, Guido Biscontin of the Department of Environmental Sciences of University of Venice. In a study of DNA made on a sample of the scapula (scapula apophysis), determined that the discovery belongs to the genetic variability of the "Neanderthal of Southern Europe", around 50,000 years ago. The first important results came from the analysis of mitochondrial DNA. On Altamura Man a study of a partial sequence of ancient DNA was conducted through meticulous investigation. The conclusions of this study, according to David Caramelli from the University of Florence, are consistent with current Paleoanthropological studies and demonstrate how Neanderthal populations could be divided into at least three groups, according to their geographical distribution: Western Europe, Southern Europe and Western Asia. The Altamura Man belongs to the genetic variability of Southern Europe with genetic sequence of DNA similar to other finds found in Spain (El Sidron) and Croatia.
Chronological studies on twenty faunal remains from the Grotta di Lamalunga carried out with Th-230 / U-234 method by Maria Elisabetta Branca and Mario Voltaggio of IGAG-CNR in Rome and published in vol. 2/2010 Dire in Puglia by MIBAC pp. 55–60, have shown that all the analyzed faunal remains found in Grotta di Lamalunga, in rooms next to the one where the Altamura Man was found, had a deposition age varying between 45,000 and 17,000 years from today, with the majority of remains varying between 45,000 and 30,000 years from now. The age of deposition was deduced from the age of calcite concretions respectively under and over the bone remains. Unfortunately, in the room where the Man lies, no concretion underlying or related with the Man himself has been osserved, except for concretions overlying the skeleton and the area of the skull which, however, were not analyzed to not alter the findings. However, the starting of speleothems concretions of the room of the Man were dated around 170,0000 years from today (study performed on a fallen stalactite) and the ending of the concretions that occurred 17,000 years from now (age of cauliflower-shaped calcite evenly covering all speleothems in the room of the Man and the supraorbital ridge of the Man himself). The only wildlife find analyzed in the room settled before 36,000 years ago (concretion age overlying a deer vertebra).
There is a running debate on the opportunity of the skull fossil removal that still divides the experts involved in the decision.
- Martin Meister, "Neandertaler: Der verkannte Mensch", Geo, 4/01 (German)
- Eligio Vacca, Vittorio Pesce Delfino, "Three-Dimensional Topographic Survey of the Human Remains in Lamalunga Cave (Altamura, Bari, Southern Italy)", 2003 (pdf)
- Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Altamura
- "Lamalunga Cave and Altamura Man". Regione Puglia. Retrieved 2014-05-29.
- M.Branca e M.Voltaggio (2010), Studi cronologici eseguiti sulle concrezioni carbonatiche della Grotta di Lamalunga, Dire in Puglia (MIBAC), 2, 55-60.
- redazione di Altamurgia.it. "Uomo di Altamura, opinione pubblica divisa sul progetto di rimozione del cranio".
- Vacca, E; Delfino, V. P. (2004). "Three-dimensional topographic survey of the human remains in Lamalunga cave (Altamura, Bari, southern Italy)". Collegium antropologicum 28 (1): 113–9. PMID 15636069.
- Introna, Francesco; De Donno, Antonio; Santoro, Valeria; Corrado, Simona; Romano, Vito; Porcelli, Francesco; Campobasso, Carlo P. (2011). "The bodies of two missing children in an enclosed underground environment". Forensic Science International 207 (1–3): e40–7. doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2010.12.007. PMID 21255948.
- "The Neanderthal in the karst: First dating, morphometric, and paleogenetic data on the fossil skeleton from Altamura (Italy)". Journal of Human Evolution. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2015.02.007. Lay summary – Phys.org (April 3, 2015).