At around 29,000 years ago, the Italian archaeological record falls silent. This hiatus seems to last for around two millennia. Mussi (2000) suggests that Italy may have become a “demographic trap”, due to the combination of low population numbers and small group sizes, leading to the eventual extinction of the Aurignacian people.
Based on their assemblages, is believed that the Gravettian people were a new group, who likely entered the Italian peninsula from south-eastern France. As climatic conditions worsen, more exotic artefacts begin to appear in the archaeological record. A major concentration of sites date to around 25,000 BP, suggesting the arrival of immigrants from northern Europe coinciding with the onset of the Last Glacial Maximum. As new people entered Italy, they had to adapt to strange environments and a more limited variety of animals. We no longer find high altitude sites like in the Aurignacian. This shift to lower altitudes is undoubtedly due to the advancing ice. There is evidence of decreased mobility during the Last Glacial Maximum, which continues until the Mesolithic period (Holt 2003). This may reflect a move to more closed systems, as regionalisation grew due to the ever-increasing population density and greater competition over territories. The burial practices, art, and personal adornments of the Early Upper Palaeolithic, which paralleled those from the rest of the continent disappear at the height of the Last Glacial Maximum, further reflecting a shift to more closed social networks. As temperatures begin to improve towards the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, these cultural artefacts reappear in abundance, once again mirroring the styles and practices seen elsewhere in Europe.
Sicily comes in for special attention. The island has long been of interest to anthropologists, who saw the it as a stepping stone between North Africa and Europe. Ferembach (1986) postulated that Sicily may have served as an entry point for the North African Aterians (or their ancestors) around 50,000 years ago, who later became the “Cro-Magnon race”. However, this idea finds little archaeological or skeletal support. Evidence of occupation prior to the Last Glacial Maximum in Sicily is patchy at best. At the site of Fontana Nuova, Aurignacian tools and isolated fragments of human bone have been found and estimated to date to around 30,000 years ago, making it the earliest record of occupation for the island (Chilardi et al 1996). However, it is the only evidence we have for the colonisation of the island during the Aurignacian and it is not until the Epigravettian (~20,000-10,000 BP) that we have further evidence of humans in Sicily. This suggests that the earliest settlers probably went extinct due their small numbers, limited resources and restricted gene flow with the mainland. It also reflects the pattern seen in the rest of Italy, since there are no Aurignacian sites known after 30,000 BP.
At the site of Grotta di San Teodoro the skeletal remains of seven individuals were found, making it the single largest Upper Palaeolithic sample in Sicily. An unpublished direct AMS 14C date situates the skeletal remains at around 14,800 BP (D’Amore et al. 2009). A recent craniometric study of the San Teodoro skeletons shows that they have higher affinities with the Late Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic populations, rather than Early Upper Palaeolithic ones (ibid.). These results suggest one of two possible scenarios (a) an early arrival with gene flow, thus explaining the homogeneity with the mainland Italian groups or (b) the late arrival of the direct descendants of the San Teodoro population on the island of Sicily. At the time of the Last Glacial Maximum there was probably a land bridge between Sicily and the Italian mainland, with sea levels being some 120 metres lower. The appearance of exotic faunal evidence further suggest this land connection. While Sicily was occupied as early as the Aurignacian, it may not have been until the Late Epigravettian that the island had a stable population able to overcome the threat of extinction. Like the rest of Italy, Sicily gives us a unique insight the challenges faced by Europe’s latest inhabitants.
*BP is used to indicated uncalibrated radiometric years before present.
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