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Skull of Italy's 400,000 year old 'Man of Ceprano' digitally reconstructed


The truth about the 'Man of Ceprano' has been revealed thanks to a very high resolution computerized micro-tomography scan at the International Theoretical Physics Centre "Abdus Salam" in Trieste which allowed palaeontologists to digitally reassemble the more than 50 fragments that make up the oldest fossil skull discovered in Italy to date.

Skull of Italy's 400,000 year old 'Man of Ceprano' digitally reconstructed
La Repubblica Photo
The remains were found in 1994 a few kilometres from Ceprano (in southern Lazio) during the construction of a road. It was not a random discovery: Italo Bidittu, a former elementary master and palaeontology enthusiast, explored the construction sites in search of fossils in areas excavated by bulldozers and mechanical shovels. One day in March he made the discovery of a lifetime: a skull broken into several pieces, whose thickness and powerful orbital arches were, however, an unmistakable sign of antiquity.

Skull of Italy's 400,000 year old 'Man of Ceprano' digitally reconstructed
La Repubblica Photo
Over the years, the 'Man of Ceprano' as the skull was named, was studied by Bidittu himself, who in the meantime was awarded an honorary degree and became a university lecturer, but also by some of the most prestigious paleoanthropologists in the world, including Antonio Ascenzi, South African Ron Clarke and French Marie-Antoinette de Lumley. They reconstructed its morphology using the original fragments by using a large number of plaster inserts to keep them together. A sensational date that was consistent with its archaic features was proposed: between 700,000 and one million years ago.  In short, the Italian researchers believed they had in their hands a very rare European example of Homo erectus.

Skull of Italy's 400,000 year old 'Man of Ceprano' digitally reconstructed
La Repubblica Photo
There was one problem however. The dating of the soils from which the remains had emerged gave a very different result, just 400,000 years ago. The most plausible hypothesis is that the skull, much older, had ended up in those sediments hundreds of thousands of years after the death of the Homo to which it had belonged.

Skull of Italy's 400,000 year old 'Man of Ceprano' digitally reconstructed
La Repubblica Photo
"Now on this point we have a definitive answer" says Giorgio Manzi, who led the team of paleontologists from the University of Rome La Sapienza involved in the digital reconstruction of the skull.

Skull of Italy's 400,000 year old 'Man of Ceprano' digitally reconstructed
La Repubblica Photo
Over the years, three different reconstructions of the skull have been made, combining bone fragments with plaster parts. The researchers led by Manzi instead "scanned" the skull with micro-tomography and then reassembled it in a virtual way.

Skull of Italy's 400,000 year old 'Man of Ceprano' digitally reconstructed
La Repubblica Photo
"The most important operation," explains the paleoanthropologist, "was the back of the skull which was deformed under the pressure of the soil from which it was buried for millennia and we restored its original shape on the computer. This has allowed us to understand that the 'Man of Ceprano' died there where Italo Bidittu found him and definitively excludes that his remains have been transported in more recent sediments. In short, beyond any reasonable doubt, his age is 400,000 years old."

La Repubblica Photo
An apparent contradiction remains between a relatively recent date, just before the appearance of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal, and the archaic characteristics that distinguish the skull.

La Repubblica Photo
"Probably the key word in this affair is refugium" continues Manzi. "The present Valle del Liri, closed towards the sea by the Lepini, Ausoni and Aurunci Mountains and towards the inside by the pre-Appennine chains, hundreds of thousands of years ago had to be a very isolated place, whose inhabitants hardly came into contact with nearby populations. The consequence is that there may have been some archaic traits of human beings while more modern species were beginning to spread in the rest of Europe."

La Repubblica Photo
So in which box should the man of Ceprano be placed? According to the research just published, the morphology of Ceprano's skull after its virtual reconstruction appears much more consistent with that of the Homo heidelbergensis, considered ancestral both to the extinct species Homo neanderthalensis and to our own species Homo sapiensis.

Fabio Di Vincenzo, first author of the study, concludes: "It was like taking up an impossible challenge launched directly from the deepest past of our evolutionary history."

The study is published in the journal Nature.

Source: La Repubblica [October 31, 2017]
TANN

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