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The oldest archaeological traces of the first inhabitants of the Italian peninsula date back to about 1,000,000/800,000 years ago. Ca' Belvedere di Monte Poggiolo in Emilia-Romagna, Ceprano, Colle Marino and Arce in southern Latium are among the best-known and most representative sites. However, it is only starting from about 700,000 years ago that human traces from the lower Palaeolithic become more frequent and document a more widespread kind of settlement, which was bound to become more pervasive during the mid-Pleistocene. In particular, wide-ranging excavations performed in two locations have brought to light major palaeosurfaces that can be related to these early settlement stages in Italy. One of them, at Isernia-La Pineta, is located in Molise along the western border of the Isernia basin in the lower range of the Apennines; another one is located at Notarchirico, in Basilicata, within the Venosa basin.
The deposit at Isernia-La Pineta was discovered by chance in 1978 during roadworks. The interest aroused by the findings fostered, from the very start, the creation of an inter-disciplinary research group, whose activity allowed bringing to light four archaeological layers from the lower Palaeolithic as well as outlining the palaeoenvironmental features of the site. The closeness to a stream, which regularly flooded, and the occurrence of volcanic events contributed to the good preservation of the site, which was covered by flood deposits (silt and clay) alternating with volcanic materials (tuff).
A considerable amount of lithic manufacts were found on the surface of the archaeological levels, consisting in choppers and, above all, flint and limestone flakes and tools, together with many animal remains belonging to bisons, bears, boars, cervids, caprids and pachyderms such as elephants, rhinos and hippos, as well as birds such as wild ducks and dabchicks, small rodents, turtles and fishes. Sedimentary, palynological and paleontological researches allowed outlining an environmental context in which large prairies were accompanied by marsh-lands and forests located on the mountains nearby - an area especially rich in wildlife and suitable for the survival of prehistoric man.
During the excavations, no fossile remains of the men (Homo erectus) in the area were found; however, there is ample testimony to their activity and adaptive capabilities, in particular in one of the palaeosurfaces dating back to about 600,000 years ago. Here, the archaeologists could document a two metres wide structure consisting in small limestone blocks, beside which there were found a major number of lithic manufacts and animal remains. The interest aroused by this palaeosurface, which is one of the most important remains of the early Palaeolithic European sites, resulted into the creation of a museum, including a large area where excavations are currently in progress - although it can already be visited by the public -, which will be left exposed in situ.
The Palaeolithic site at Notarchirico was found in 1979 in the upper part of the hill bearing the same name, which is located on the border of the Venosa basin. The excavations were carried out between 1980 and 1995 in the sedimentary series that were deposited during the mid-Pleistocene - essentially by fluvio-lacustrine and volcanic sediments. They brought to light 11 sequential levels from the lower Palaeolithic, some of which could be explored extensively. Thanks to the correlations with volcanic deposits in the area, it could be established that the sequence in question covers a relatively narrow time range (about 200,000 years) starting from about 650,000 years ago - a period featuring the transition towards a colder climate. The prairie-like environment, with sparse trees, was peopled by several wildlife species among which elephants prevailed, followed by cervids and bovids; in addition to the remains from these animals, some remains from rhinos, hares, turtles and birds were also found in the archaeological levels explored, with an abundance of smaller animals that would point to a colder climate than the current one. In the various archaeological levels, lithic manufacts could be found including choppers and flake tools, as well as - in some cases - bifaces; based on their features, they can be classed as belonging to an archaic Acheulian phase of southern Italy. The Alpha palaeosurface is especially interesting, being the most recent one in the series (estimated to date back to about 450,000 years ago) and exposed as for about 100 square metres. A fragment of a human femur was found on this surface - it is the oldest human fossil remain found so far in southern Italy, with a dating of 359 +/- 157/-97 ka (by the Uranium-disequilibrium method), considered to be underestimated. The B palaeosurface (of about 30 square metres) is also interesting, as it bears the remains of an elephant's skull with the tusks still in place, together with several bifaces, choppers, and flintstone and limestone scrapers.
The sequential archaeological layers were left in situ because of their importance and outstanding features, and were protected by a structure including several didactic panels; a multivarious kind of audience has been visiting this area for several years. The museum structure is the portion implemented so far of a larger project envisaging the creation of a Prehistoric Park in the Venosa basin, foreseeably including the adjacent Palaeolithic site of Loreto - which is only 700 m far as the crow flies.
The palaeosurfaces are preserved in situ thanks to the structures protecting them. Such structures are actually in situ museums that have already been visited by a multivarious audience including scholars, pupils and occasional visitors. Additionally, the museum structure in Notarchirico is the first part of a project envisaging a Palaeolithic Park, which is expected to also include the lower Palaeolithic site at Loreto and adds to the Archaeological Park that has been operating for several years and contains major archaeological findings of both the Classical and the early Christian age.The palaeosurfaces are protected pursuant to national legislation (Legislative decree no. 42/2004, containing the "Code on Cultural Heritage and Landscape" - Title I, Section 10). Both sites are publicly owned.
Palaeosurfaces from the lower Palaeolithic have been found in several archaeological sites in Europe and are widely known in literature. Reference can be made to the Arago Cave (Tautavel, France) and to Atapuerca (Burgos, Spain), which date back to a similar period; however, no complex on-site preservation facilities have been created in those sites such as those that can be seen at both Isernia-La Pineta and Notarchirico. Extensive palaeosurfaces of comparable antiquity that have been preserved on site can only be found in Africa - at the Acheulian sites of Olorgesaile (Kenya) - where however no wildlife remains could be found - and Gombore II at Melka Kunture (Ethiopia).