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Decapitated Stone Age woman's head rolled into a cave in Italy

Archaeologist Lucia Castagna recovers the 5,600-year-old human skull at the top of a vertical shaft in the Marcel Loubens cave, in the Bologna area of northern Italy.
Archaeologist Lucia Castagna recovers the 5,600-year-old human skull at the top of a vertical shaft in the Marcel Loubens cave, in the Bologna area of northern Italy. (Image credit: Belcastro et al, 2021, PLOS ONE; CC-BY 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

Following her death about 5,600 years ago, a Stone Age woman's skull took an unexpected journey when mud and water washed it away from her burial site and into the craggy rocks of a steep cave in what is now Italy, a new study finds.

When archaeologists found the skull, its resting spot in the cave shaft was so hard to reach that only one archaeologist, using rock climbing equipment, could squeeze into the space to recover it. During a later analysis, the researchers found that the skull was very scratched up; at first, they couldn't make heads or tails of what had happened to the ancient woman. 

But, after determining which of the skull's lesions were likely caused by humans and which were likely incurred as the skull tumbled against various rocks, the researchers came up with a possible scenario. Once this woman died, people in her community likely dismembered her corpse — a funeral practice performed at other burials from this time period and region. After people separated the woman's skull from the rest of her body, environmental forces swept it away into the cave, the researchers suggested. 

Related: Back to the Stone Age: 17 key milestones in Paleolithic life 

Archaeologists discovered the lone skull in 2015 in northern Italy's Marcel Loubens cave. Caves are common sites for ancient burials, but archaeologists couldn't find any other human remains there, even when they returned in 2017 with climbing equipment to retrieve the skull. 

A CT (computed tomography) scan and analysis of the skull itself revealed that the woman was between the ages of 24 and 35 when she died, while radiocarbon dating indicated that she lived between 3630 and 3380 B.C., during the New Stone Age, or Neolithic period. To put that into perspective, this woman lived just before Ötzi the Iceman, whose mummified remains date to 3300 B.C. and were also found in northern Italy.

What happened?

Several traumatic lesions on the woman's skull helped the researchers piece together her strange story. One dent — which showed signs of healing, meaning it was incurred when she was alive — may have been made forcefully with tools, as there were parallel grooves below it, the researchers said. Perhaps this woman had undergone cranial surgery, such as trepanation — a technique employed during the Neolithic and later in which holes are made in the skull, they said. A smudge of red ocher pigment found on this dent may have been placed there for therapeutic or symbolic reasons, the team noted.

Other lesions indicated that the soft tissues on her skull had been cut and scraped off after she died, as these lesions showed no signs of healing, the researchers said. This practice has been documented at other Neolithic burials in Italy; for instance, at Re Tiberio Cave in northern Italy, the long arm and leg bones of up to 17 Neolithic human skeletons were arranged in order, and their heads were missing — clues that these people's body parts might have been separated and rearranged after death. Other Neolithic remains found at nearby caves also show evidence of cranial scrape marks that were made after those people died, the researchers said.

Different views of the Neolithic woman's skull. The boxes indicate areas with lesions on the exterior of the skull.

Different views of the Neolithic woman's skull. The boxes indicate areas with lesions on the exterior of the skull. (Image credit: Belcastro et al, 2021, PLOS ONE; CC-BY 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

Life during the Neolithic was challenging, so it's no surprise that the woman wasn't in the best health. Tiny holes on top of her skull may be related to inflammation, possibly from chronic anemia (iron or vitamin B12 deficiency), the researchers said. The woman also had two dense, ivory-like spots on her skull, which were likely benign tumors. Even her tooth enamel was underdeveloped, suggesting that she had health problems when her permanent teeth were developing in early childhood. She also had several cavities, possibly due to a diet high in carbohydrates, the researchers said.

Related: Images: A new face for Ötzi the Iceman mummy

Rocky tumble

Other damage and encrusted sediment on the woman's skull told another story — essentially, that natural forces moved the woman's cranium after her burial. After the woman was laid to rest, the dismembered skull rolled away, probably with water and mud that was flowing downhill toward a sinkhole. 

"After a long and bumpy ride, [the skull] accidentally ended up in the cave," the researchers said in a statement. Over time, the sinkhole's geological activity created a cave, where the skull sat for 5,600 years until it was discovered by modern archaeologists.

The skull's resting spot is "unusual," but "the authors are able to provide a plausible scenario how the skull ended up in this cave," said Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the Lower Saxony State Office for Cultural Heritage, in Hannover, Germany, who wasn't involved in the study. But the origin of some of the skull's lesions is still murky, he said.

"I have the feeling the authors themselves, who did a very good job, are not 100% sure about this," Terberger told Live Science in an email. "It is not always easy to distinguish between striations (caused by transport in the sediment/rocky ground) and cut marks."

Even though this skull represents just one individual, "case studies like this are important to show the huge variety of postmortem episodes that can actually happen to skeletal remains, initiated by natural or anthropogenic [human-caused] factors," Christian Meyer, lead researcher at the OsteoArchaeological Research Center in Germany, who wasn't involved in the study, told Live Science in an email.

The study was published online Wednesday (March 3) in the journal PLOS One.

Originally published on Live Science.

Laura Geggel

As an editor for Live Science, Laura Geggel covers general science, including the environment, archaeology and amazing animals. She has written for The New York Times, Scholastic, Popular Science and Spectrum, a site covering autism research. Laura grew up in Seattle and studied English literature and psychology at Washington University in St. Louis before completing her graduate degree in science writing at NYU. When not writing, you'll find Laura playing Ultimate Frisbee.