Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry June 2011                    

Homo Aeserniensis

An important palæontology site is located about 100 km (60 miles) north of Naples in that part of the town of Isernia called La Pineta (pine grove). There are remains of human activity from about 700,000 years ago. I say "human" and knowingly gloss over disputes in classification. Many sources use the term Homo Erectus (Aeserniensis). In any event, the site covers about 3 hectares/7.5 acres and is one of the most important finds from the Lower Paleolithic in Italy. (That is the earliest subdivision of the Stone Age. The period runs from about 2.5 million years ago, when the first use of tools by hominids appears, until around 300,000 years ago.) The site at Isernia-La Pineta was uncovered in 1978 during road construction.

Information published by the province of Molise, where the site is located,  says,

...the settlement constitutes a mine of information for reconstructing the life of Homo erectus. Three distinct living floors, characterised by tens of thousands of finds, have been detected; these offer fundamental information on the methods of manufacture of stone tools, activities of hunting and butchering, organisation of living spaces, and subsistence strategies in the changeable relationship between humankind and the environment.

No actual remains of Homo erectus* were found; thus, that nomenclature is an extrapolation based on ample evidence of their activity such as work with flint and limestone flakes and tools, together with many animal remains and, at least according to some sources, the use of fire.* Archaeologists also found a two-meter-wide structure of small limestone blocks. The remains and artifacts are relatively well-preserved; this is due to the fact that the area flooded regularly and was then covered by flood deposits of silt and clay over and over again. As well, persistent volcanic activity covered much of the area with pyroclastic materials.

There is a permanent public exhibition on the Paleolithic site in the Museum of S. Maria delle Monache in Isernia (photo, above).

*note: According to the generally accepted time-line, Homo erectus is "...a new type of early humans...[who]...appeared about 1.8 million years ago in the fossil record of eastern Africa...and [which] also became the first human type to spread from that continent...It is also possible that H. erectus was present in Europe as long ago as 1.5 million years..." [from "Homo erectus" in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution, Cambridge University Press, 1992.] It remains, however, a matter of much scholarly debate the extent to which Homo erectus might or might not be a direct ancestor of modern humans.

I am not aware that those connected with the Isernia-Pineta site make unequivocal claims about the use of fire. A claim to the controlled use of fire as early as 700,000 years ago would meet with skepticism from many sources since such evidence as hearths and charred animal bones are present in the archaeological record starting only much later, around 400,000 years ago. There is, however, a lot of "wiggle room" when you deal with tens and even hundreds of thousands of years. A 2009 report from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem claims the existence of hearths and the controlled use of fire at a site dated to about 750,000 years ago; (N. Alperson-Afil, et al. "Spatial Organization of Hominin Activities at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, Israel" in Science, 2009; 326 (5960): 1677 DOI: 10.1126/science.1180695).

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