Back to Book Reviews

Earliest Italy: An Overview of the Italian Paleolithic and Mesolithic by MARGHERITA MUSSI
Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. 2001. 399 pages, 143 text figures. ISBN 0-306-46463-2 (£63.00)

Earliest Italy is the first English language overview of the Italian Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, and as such should make a welcome addition to library bookshelves. Italy has a very rich archaeological record, and prehistoric sites are found virtually throughout the mainland and islands, both in caves and in the open-air, along the present-day coast, in the interior valleys, and on the high mountains. Italy has a surface area of more than 300,000 square kilometres, with 100,000 square kilometres of mountains and 125,000 square kilometres of hills, encircled by 9000 kilometres of coasts. In the south, Sicily reaches the 37th parallel, the same latitude as Algeria, Tunisia and Syria, while in the north, at a distance of 1100 kilometres, the country extends up to the Alps at the 47th parallel, culminating at 4810 metres above sea level with Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe. The country is thus characterised by a wide range of geographic variation which can be expected to have played an influential role in the land use of Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers.

After giving a very brief introduction to the geography of the country and the history of archaeological research, Mussi structures her book in six period-based chapters in each of which she synthesises the main characteristics of the stratigraphies, faunas and stone tool assemblages of three or four principal sites, and then comments on themes such as settlement patterns, subsistence strategies and social systems. I will highlight some of the salient points of each chapter, saving most of my comments for the discussion which follows.

Chapter 2, ‘The Earliest Settlement’, considers the evidence for the presence of the first humans in Italy. Mussi is an advocate of a ‘short chronology’, believing that such evidence dates to the early Middle Pleistocene, between 650,000 BP and 400,000 BP (see also Mussi 1995; for a different view, see Milliken 1999; 2004). Despite the absence of handaxes at many of these sites, she argues that assemblages of this age are all part of the Acheulean technocomplex, and the absence of handaxes can be explained by specialised activities, sampling bias, and lack of suitable raw material. Although human population density appears to have been low, it seems that a substantial part of the Italian peninsula was explored and settled, from Liguria in the north to Calabria in the south, and open-air sites are found both by the sea and in the hills of the interior.

Chapter 3, ‘Real Colonization’, addresses the late Middle Pleistocene archaeological record, between 360,000 BP and 130,000 BP. In this period there are more dated sites, and Acheulean assemblages are found all over the mainland, primarily in the open-air. As in most of Europe, the first Levallois industries also appear at this time. Mussi argues that there is no major change in site density and exploited resources compared with the period of ‘earliest settlement’, but there is evidence of seasonal occupation of some mountain areas, and the first signs of successful competition with carnivores for the use of caves.

Chapter 4, ‘On Neandertals and Caves’, is concerned with the Middle Palaeolithic period, from 130,000 BP to 40,000 BP. Most of the Mousterian industries can be classified within the framework established in France, as Typical Mousterian, Denticulate Mousterian, Ferrassie or Quina Mousterian, though no industries that could be described as Mousterian of Acheulean tradition have been discovered. In addition there is the Pontinian Mousterian, an industry made on very small pebbles, which is peculiar to west-central Italy. Mussi considers the nature of Mousterian assemblage variability on both an intrasite and an intersite level, and discusses topics such as lithic raw material procurement strategies, the use of shell as a raw material, and regional differentiation and chronological diversification. Unfortunately this chapter perpetuates the fallacy that caves constituted the focus of Neanderthal settlement patterns, whereas an exhaustive search of the literature has shown that this is not in fact the case, with open-air sites outnumbering cave and rockshelter sites by a ratio of at least two to one (Milliken 2001).

Chapter 5, ‘Moderns versus Neandertals’, addresses the question of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition. In Italy the lithic industries found immediately after the Mousterian are classified as belonging either to the Uluzzian or to the Aurignacian, and there seems to be a tacit assumption that the former were made by Neanderthals while the latter were made by modern humans, Homo sapiens. In fact, human remains are very rare in the Italian Early Upper Palaeolithic, and consequently the association between different hominid species and lithic industries remains unclear.

Chapter 6, ‘Fully Equipped Hunter-Gatherers’, is concerned with the Gravettian and Early Epigravettian periods, between 25,000 BP and 16,000 BP. Beginning with the Gravettian, the archaeological record becomes more comprehensive, due to the extensive array of material found, such as works of art and the first evidence for burials. Although human settlement was as scattered as it had been in previous occupations, and in fact only about fifty sites can be dated to this period, the occupation of Italy appears to have been stable. This is in contrast to the preceding five thousand or so years, between 30,000 BP and 25,000 BP, when only isolated individuals, or small human groups, visited part of the Italian peninsula episodically. Some of the Gravettian and Early Epigravettian sites are multilayered settlements with thousands of artefacts indicating frequent reoccupation of a preferred spot, while others are short-term campsites.

Chapter 7, ‘The Great Shift’, is the final chapter in the book, and addresses the Late Glacial and Early Postglacial record, corresponding with the Final Epigravettian and the Mesolithic periods, from 16,000 BP to 7500 BP. Given the presence of mountain ranges within a short distance of the coast, Italy is ideally suited to illustrate the great shift in human adaptation that occurred at this time. Rising temperatures resulted in rising sea levels, which in turn caused the coastal plains to shrink and, in some areas, to disappear. This is reflected in a shift from marine to terrestrial molluscs in the shell middens, and in the abandonment of many sites. On the other hand, with rising temperatures the nearby mountain ranges became accessible to plants, animals, and, eventually, to humans, and hundreds of sites have been recorded between 1900 and 2300 metres above sea level, and up to the Alpine watershed. Some of these sites were short-lived, while others were repeatedly occupied, during summer excursions to hunt ibex and chamois. Sicily was permanently colonised during this period, although the evidence for pre-Neolithic occupation on Sardinia is more ambiguous.

The author of any archaeological textbook, and in particular of one that is trying to make available to the English-speaking world information that has largely been published in a foreign language, bears a heavy responsibility: to present a clear, accurate and unbiased account of the facts, and of the various ways these facts have been interpreted. On the whole I believe that Mussi has achieved this, though not consistently throughout the book, and there are some unfortunate omissions and inaccuracies. It is not possible in the space of this short review to flag up all of these, so I will restrict my comments to just a couple of themes in order to illustrate the kind of reservations I hold.

It would have been useful, for example, to have been provided with more tables which collate information, such as an inventory of Neanderthal skeletal remains. This table would have shown that these have been found at twenty-eight sites (and not from ‘a dozen or so sites’, p.113), and Italy in fact occupies second place, after France, for the greatest number of sites with such remains. In Italy, as in the rest of Europe, the first Neanderthal fossils were discovered towards the end of the nineteenth century. They were found at the site of Caverna delle Fate in Liguria in 1887-1888, although the bones were not identified as being Neanderthal until much later, since at that time the characteristics of this species were still poorly known. Caverna delle Fate, which is not mentioned at all by Mussi, is an important site, not only because of its role in the historical development of prehistoric studies in Italy, but also because of the number of Neanderthal remains found there: sixteen fossils representing numerous individuals, both adults and children (Giacobini et al. 1984). Another striking omission from Mussi’s book is the complete Neanderthal skeleton that was found at Grotta Lamalunga near Altamura, Apulia, in 1993 (Pesce Delfino & Vacca 1994). These two sites aside, the majority of the Neanderthal remains in Italy consist of the odd bone or the odd tooth. The fragmentary nature of the Neanderthal remains from the Italian sites is interpreted by Mussi as supporting the idea that burial of the dead was not practised, since mortuary behaviour in the Palaeolithic is generally assumed to have involved the burial of the entire corpse of the deceased. The fact that usually only a few bones or teeth are found is interpreted as being the result of natural processes, in this case carnivore scavenging activities. But I would argue that just as the assumption that articulated skeletal material constitutes prima facie evidence for deliberate mortuary practices is flawed, so too is the assumption that the absence of articulated skeletal material implies the absence of mortuary behaviour. We cannot exclude the possibility that, at least at some of these sites, we are witnessing mortuary practices based on disarticulated Neanderthal bones resulting from manipulations on corpses of the deceased (Milliken 2001).

Another table which Mussi could usefully have included would have been one showing the radiometric dates of Uluzzian and Aurignacian sites. This would have revealed that the Uluzzian sites in the south appear to be more or less contemporary with (or even later than) the Early Aurignacian sites in the north, while the Early Aurignacian sites in the south are more recent than those in the north, a pattern which has been interpreted as indicating a slow migration of anatomically modern humans from the north to the south (Bietti 1997). Such a table would also have revealed that there are, however, only three dated Aurignacian sites in the north, and only five in the centre/south. Instead, what Mussi actually tells us is that “in Italy the full Upper Palaeolithic (i.e., the Aurignacian) is found everywhere by 31 ka” (p. 208).

On the whole the text is well written, though Mussi has adopted the first person plural rather than singular, which is an odd stylistic choice for a single authored book, in particular since many of the views she expresses are not widely shared. My main criticism, though, beyond the omissions and inaccuracies, resides with what one can only describe as shoddy editing and proof reading: at a price of £63, and published by a reputable company such as Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, one neither expects, nor deserves, a book which has numerous typographic errors, superimposed and consequently illegible text, maps which have been printed upside down, blurred photographs, and indecipherable charts.

Despite the reservations which I have briefly outlined here, the English-speaking student of the Italian Palaeolithic and Mesolithic should nevertheless find much useful information in this book.

Sarah Milliken
Institute of Archaeology, University of Oxford

Bietti, A., 1997. The transition to anatomically modern humans: the case of peninsular Italy. In Clark, G.A. & Willerment, C. (eds), Conceptual Issues in Modern Human Origins Research. New York, Aldine de Gruyter,132-150
Giacobini, G., de Lumley, M.A., Yokoyama, Y. & Nguyen, H.V., 1984. Neanderthal child and adult remains from a Mousterian deposit in Northern Italy (Caverna delle Fate, Finale Ligure). Journal of Human Evolution 13, 687-707
Milliken, S., 1999. The earliest occupation of Italy. Accordia Research Papers 7, 7-36
Milliken, S., 2001. The Neanderthals in Italy. Accordia Research Papers 8, 11-82
Milliken, S., 2004. Out of Africa or out of Asia? The colonization of Europe by Homo erectus. Athena Review 4 (1), 21-34.
Mussi, M., 1995. The earliest occupation of Europe: Italy. In Roebroeks, W. & van Kolfschoten, T. (eds), The Earliest Occupation of Europe. Leiden, University of Leiden Press, 27-50
Pesce Delfino, V. & Vacca, E., 1994. Report of an archaic human skeleton discovered at Altamura (Bari), in the Lamalunga district. Human Evolution 9, 1-19

Review Submitted: April 2004

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

Home Page The Prehistoric Society Home Page