Upper Palaeolithic Italy

The early Lower Palaeolithic remains from Ceprano and Monte Poggiolo show that humans arrived in the Italian peninsula sometime prior to 700,000 years ago. However, it is not until the Aurignacian period (~ 38,000-30,000 BP*) of the Upper Palaeolithic that we see signs of widespread occupation. The earliest Aurignacian seems to occur in northern Italy, before expanding southwards (Mussi 1990). The people of the Aurignacian exploited very diverse habitats in both lowland and mountainous areas, as well as on the island of Sicily.

Extrapolating from data by Bocquet-Appel et al. (2005) it is possible that the population of Italy did not exceed 1,000 inhabitants. While this figure is little more than a best guess, it still gives us an idea of the fragile nature of these groups, who were living constantly on the edge of extinction. With such small numbers inbreeding can become a serious problem. However, studies of European Upper Palaeolithic people find them to be surprisingly homogenous as a whole, which would suggest a significant amount of gene flow between far-flung populations (Henke 1989, 1991). In order to understand how mating systems would have operated during the Early Upper Palaeolithic researchers have looked to modern hunter-gatherer groups. Such studies have found hunter-gatherers to have less group closure than agriculturalists. This would have been an important survival strategy for the hunter-gatherer groups of the Upper Palaeolithic, especially when faced with unpredictable environmental conditions and already constrained mating networks. This open network is also reflected in the material culture from this period. Venus figurines, dating chiefly from the Gravettian period, have been found over an area of approximately 2000 km, spanning from modern day Russia in the Northeast to Spain in the Southwest. The Italian Venuses from Savignano, Balzi Rossi and Parabita show the same female form, with an enlarged midsection, pronounced buttocks, large breasts and voluminous thighs, characteristic of the vast majority of these figurines. This suggests that there was an extensive flow of people and ideas during the Early Upper Palaeolithic. This is further supported by the transport of exotic materials, such as flint and shells over distances of several hundred kilometres.

At around 29,000 years ago, the Italian archaeological record falls silent. This hiatus seems to last for around two millennia. Mussi (2000) suggests that Italy may have become a "demographic trap", due to the combination of low population numbers and small group sizes, leading to the eventual extinction of the Aurignacian people.

Based on their assemblages, is believed that the Gravettian people were a new group, who likely entered the Italian peninsula from south-eastern France. As climatic conditions worsen, more exotic artefacts begin to appear in the archaeological record. A major concentration of sites date to around 25,000 BP, suggesting the arrival of immigrants from northern Europe coinciding with the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum. As new people entered Italy, they had to adapt to strange environments and a more limited variety of animals. We no longer find high altitude sites like in the Aurignacian. This shift to lower altitudes is undoubtedly due to the advancing ice. There is evidence of decreased mobility during the Last Glacial Maximum, which continues until the Mesolithic period (Holt 2003). This may reflect a move to more closed systems, as regionalisation grew due to the ever-increasing population density and greater competition over territories. The burial practices, art, and personal adornments of the Early Upper Palaeolithic, which paralleled those from the rest of the continent disappear at the height of the Last Glacial Maximum, further reflecting a shift to more closed social networks. As temperatures begin to improve towards the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, these cultural artefacts reappear in abundance, once again mirroring the styles and practices seen elsewhere in Europe.

Sicily comes in for special attention. The island has long been of interest to anthropologists, who saw the it as a stepping stone between North Africa and Europe. Ferembach (1986) postulated that Sicily may have served as an entry point for the North African Aterians (or their ancestors) around 50,000 years ago, who later became the "Cro-Magnon race". However, this idea finds little archaeological or skeletal support. Evidence of occupation prior to the Last Glacial Maximum in Sicily is patchy at best. At the site of Fontana Nuova, Aurignacian tools and isolated fragments of human bone have been found and estimated to date to around 30,000 years ago, making it the earliest record of occupation for the island (Chilardi et al 1996). However, it is the only evidence we have for the colonisation of the island during the Aurignacian and it is not until the Epigravettian (~20,000-10,000 BP) that we have further evidence of humans in Sicily. This suggests that the earliest settlers probably went extinct due their small numbers, limited resources and restricted gene flow with the mainland. It also reflects the pattern seen in the rest of Italy, since there are no Aurignacian sites known after 30,000 BP.

At the site of Grotta di San Teodoro the skeletal remains of seven individuals were found, making it the single largest Upper Palaeolithic sample in Sicily. An unpublished direct AMS 14C date situates the skeletal remains at around 14,800 BP (D’Amore et al. 2009). A recent craniometric study of the San Teodoro skeletons shows that they have higher affinities with the Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic populations, rather than Early Upper Palaeolithic ones (ibid.). These results suggest one of two possible scenarios (a) an early arrival with gene flow, thus explaining the homogeneity with the mainland Italian groups or (b) the late arrival of the direct descendants of the San Teodoro population on the island of Sicily. At the time of the Last Glacial Maximum there was probably a land bridge between Sicily and the Italian mainland, with sea levels being some 120 metres lower. The appearance of exotic faunal evidence further suggest this land connection. While Sicily was occupied as early as the Aurignacian, it may not have been until the Late Epigravettian that the island had a stable population able to overcome the threat of extinction. Like the rest of Italy, Sicily gives us a unique insight the challenges faced by Europe’s latest inhabitants.

*BP is used to indicated uncalibrated radiometric years before present.

Bocquet-Appel et al. Estimates of Upper Palaeolithic meta-population size in Europe from archaeological data. Journal of Archaeological Science (2005) vol. 32 (11) pp. 1656-1668.

Chilardi S, Frayer DW, Gioia P, Macchiarelli R, Mussi M (1996) Fontana Nuova di Ragusa (Sicily, Italy): southernmost Aurignacian site in Europe 70: 553-563.

D'Amore G, Marco SD, Tartarelli G, Bigazzi R, Sineo L (2009) Late Pleistocene human evolution in Sicily: comparative morphometric analysis of Grotta di San Teodoro craniofacial remains 56: 537-550.

Ferembach. Les Hommes du Paléolithique Supérieur. Autour du Bassin Méditerraneen. L'Anthropologie (1986) vol. 90 (3) pp. 579-587.

Henke W (1991) Biological Distances in Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene Human Populations in Europe. In: Variability and Evolution. Poznan, Poland: Miskiewicz University Press. pp. 39-64.

Henke (1989) Jungpaläolithiker und Mesolithiker: Beiträge zur Anthropologie. Habilitationsschrift, FB Biologie, Mainz, 1701 S.

Holt BM (2003) Mobility in Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic Europe: Evidence from the lower limb. Am. J. Phys. Anthropol.

Mussi (1990) Continuity and change in Italy at the Last Glacial Maximum.. In: Soffer, Gamble, editors. The world at 18000: high latitudes. London: . pp. 126-147.

Mussi M (2000) Heading south: the gravettian colonisation of Italy. In: Roebroeks, Mussi, Svoboda, Fennema, editors. Hunters of the Golden Age: The Mid Upper Palaeolithic of Eurasia 30,000–20,000 BP. Leiden: Leiden University Press. pp. 355-374.

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