Interest in the often disparaged version of prehistoric humans has surged in the past few years with the discovery that traces of Neanderthal DNA still live in homo sapiens. Research is proving that the Neanderthals, who died out about 40,000 years ago, were far more sophisticated than modern humans have long believed.
The latest findings — in the Guattari Cave in San Felice Circeo some 55 miles southeast of Rome — include skulls, skull fragments, teeth and other bone fragments.
Anthropologist Mauro Rubini said the large number of remains indicates a significant population of Neanderthals in the area, and “the first human society we can speak of,” The Associated Press reported.
A team of archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists and paleontologists also searched a separate section of the cave to unearth burned bones, bones with cut marks indicating hunting, and carved stones.
One of the best-preserved Neanderthal skulls ever found was discovered in the same cave in 1939. A hole in the temple sparked a theory that Neanderthals engaged in ritual cannibalism and extracted brains as part of the process. But similar markings on the newly discovered fossils indicate that the Neanderthals were consumed by hyenas.
It’s not clear if the Neanderthals were killed by the hyenas, or if the hyenas ate the Neanderthals after they died of other causes.
Archaeologists also unearthed fossilized remains of hyenas in the cave, along with hundreds of bones of elephants, rhinoceros, cave bear, wild horses, giant deer and the extinct bovine aurochs, which all could have been dragged, and consumed, by hyenas, researchers speculate.
“Many of the bones found show clear signs of gnawing” by hyenas, noted the ministry statement.
The cave, sealed off by a prehistoric landslide, was preserved as it was some 50,000 years ago, said researchers.
The new discovery makes the site “one of the most significant places in the world for the history of Neanderthals,” according to the Italian Culture Ministry.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.