Based on the integration of laser scans, sedimentology, geochemistry, archeobotany, geometric morphometrics and photogrammetry, here we present evidence testifying that a Palaeolithic group of people explored a deep cave in northern Italy about 14 ky cal. BP. Ichnological data enable us to shed light on individual and group level behavior, social relationship, and mode of exploration of the uneven terrain. Five individuals, two adults, an adolescent and two children, entered the cave barefoot and illuminated the way with a bunch of wooden sticks. Traces of crawling locomotion are documented for the first time in the global human ichnological record. Anatomical details recognizable in the crawling traces show that no clothing was present between limbs and the trampled sediments. Our study demonstrates that very young children (the youngest about 3 years old) were active members of the Upper Palaeolithic populations, even in apparently dangerous and social activities.
The fossil traces of Stone Age humans and other animals in the Grotta della Bàsura cave system in Italy have been studied since the 1950s. Italian archaeologist Virginia Chiappella published the first studies; she documented bones from an extinct cave bear, human and animal footprints, charcoal from torches, finger marks, and lumps of clay stuck on the walls. Since then, many more archeologists and anthropologists have studied the cave and its fossils. Yet there are still lessons to be learned from this prehistoric site.
Now, Romano et al. have combined a number of different approaches and used some of the latest technology and cutting-edge software to analyze 180 footprints and other tracks found in the cave. These trace fossils date to about 14,000 years ago, and the analysis revealed that they were left by a group of Stone Age humans who descended at least 400 meters into the cave. The group consisted of two adults, an adolescent and two children of about three and six years old. At one point they had to crawl through a low tunnel – something that has not previously been documented in the fossil record. The group were all barefoot, had no clothing on their arms and legs and used wooden torches to light the way.
Together, these findings suggest that young children were active group members during the late Stone Age, even when carrying out apparently dangerous activities. Romano et al. now hope that their multidisciplinary approach may help other scientists looking to understand how humans behaved elsewhere in the world at various points in history.