Will Italian Caves Reveal the Secrets of Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyles?

Subsistence Habits of Prehistoric Man

A team of archaeologists is hoping to find out how prehistoric man survived in central Italy at the end of the last ice age. The researchers are about to set out on a study tour of 10 different locations throughout Italy where they hope to find clues to the lifestyles and habits of early hunter-gatherer humans between 18,000 BC and around 6,000 BC.

Until now their hunting and travelling patterns have been in question with two contradictory theories about how the hunter-gatherers would have got their food in an era of extreme environmental change before humans began farming.

Conflicting Theories

One theory claims that the palaeolithic societies would have relied on a wide variety of local food sources, including small animals such as fish, which would have meant they had no need for much travel or seasonal migration. The other theory sets out the idea that the pre-agricultural society would have depended on seasonal food sources with humans moving periodically between uplands and lowlands or following herds (such as deer) over long distances.

Dr Randy Donahue, senior lecturer in archaeology and anthropology at the University of Bradford, is the principal investigator on the research project and he is intending to test some of the hypotheses using advanced techniques such as high precision dating with stable isotope analyses.

He explained that so far the pilot study has shown that an obvious source of food for prehistoric man large herbivores is unlikely to migrate over long distances. This suggests that humans were also unlikely to have travelled far following a herd of animals. Dr Donahue said: They could be moving long distances seasonally simply to be where animals and plants may be found in large quantities. Or they could be relatively sedentary and sending hunting parties out (long distances if necessary) to bring back game. However he adds: There does seem to be quite a bit of small game being exploited so they may be becoming more focused on regional resources.

Map to show Caves across Italy.

Ten Italian Caves to be Expolored

The Italian universities of Pisa, Florence, Rome (La Sapienza) and Siena, plus the British universities of Oxford and Royal Holloway are also collaborating on the project, as well as the Pigorini Museum, the Max Planck Institute and the British National Isotope Geosciences Laboratory. The team will investigate 10 archaeological caves, most of them in southern Italy. They will be analysing animal bones found in the caves as well as human tools to try to establish the hunting habits of humans. The caves to be excavated are:

Grotta Cavallo (Puglia)

  • Grotta Paglicci (Puglia)
  • Grotta della Madonna (Calabria)
  • Grotta Romito (Calabria)
  • Grotta della Cala (Camerota)
  • Grotta della Serratura (Camerota)
  • Grotta Continenza (Abruzzo)
  • Grotta del Pozzo (Abruzzo)
  • Grotta di Settecannelle (Lazio)
  • Grotta di Vado all’ Arancio (Toscana)

Photo and map by Dr Randolph Donahue.