Once home to the ancient Romans, Italy is a great window into the past. Using archaeological discoveries, the view spans from prehistoric times to just a few centuries ago.
Below are some rare finds from ancient times discovered in Italy.
A cataclysm struck Earth around 250 million years ago. It was so merciless that 90 percent of all species vanished. Scientists call it “the Great Dying” because no other extinction could match the lives lost, not even the disaster that famously removed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Theories like space impacts, microbes releasing too much methane, and world-destroying volcanic eruptions could not be proven. In 2015, researchers smelled cupcake-scented rocks in northern Italy. This was significant. The same molecule that gives the vanilla plant its flavor—vanillin—also occurs elsewhere in nature. However, in soil, bacteria quickly destroy it.
Finding large amounts of vanillan in rocks dating back to the extinction meant that something had removed the bacteria. It was probably acid because acidifying milk prohibits bacteria and makes vanilla-flavored drinks keep their taste longer.This supported the volcano theory—that eruptions caused acid rain on a global scale, destroying ecosystems and making survival difficult. Although the discovery helped, researchers still need to find vanillin in other places to confirm that a worldwide deluge of acid rain once took place.
Italy’s Oldest Olive Oil
20 years ago, archaeologists found pottery shards at Castelluccio, a
village in central Italy. The fragments belonged to a jar. After its 400
pieces were reassembled, the vessel was around 1 meter (3.5 ft) tall
and looked like an egg.
A 2018 analysis tried to find out what the jar contained and how old the contents were. Using several cutting-edge techniques, the team found signs of linoleic and oleic acid—in other words, olive oil.
This was perhaps not so surprising given Italy’s long love affair with the “liquid gold,” as it is sometimes called. An age test, done with nuclear magnetic resonance, squarely put the oil in prehistory.
Remarkably, the jar and its contents were 4,000 years old. This showed that the region already produced olive oil during the Bronze Age, a whopping 700 years earlier than previously believed.
A Hidden Settlement
A few years ago, construction workers stumbled onto a religious site. While working near the Apennine Mountains in Italy, they found two temples from the late Roman period (AD 300 to AD 600). The rough terrain of the region made it too dangerous for archaeologists to gather data by plane, but they were desperate to find out about the ruins.
Nobody knew who built the temples, what they were used for, and why the buildings appeared to stand alone in the valley. Between 2013 and 2015, archaeologists enlisted the help of drones. The plucky machines not only flew where no plane had flown before but they also sent back photos that stunned the team.
Computer programs used the images to find ruins below the ground. Appearing on the computer’s screen, the pictures revealed something unexpected—near the temples was an entire settlement. A dense pattern of buildings included storage areas and homes.
Although researchers got a good understanding of the town’s internal organization, its link to the temples and why the settlement was abandoned remain unanswered.
Ancient Cave Explorers
In 2019, around 180 human footprints were analyzed in northern Italy. Discovered inside a cave called Grotta della Basura, the prints revealed that five people had entered it 14,000 years ago. They were two adults, a preteen aged between eight and 11, and two children aged six and three, respectively.
After making it 150 meters (500 ft) into the cave, they arrived at a corridor and fell into a single file. The three-year-old was last in line. The party walked close to the wall until the ceiling lowered and forced them to crawl. The marks left behind from their hands, feet, and knees were the first fossilized signs of human crawling ever found.
After making it through stalagmites, a pond, and a slope, they paused in a chamber. There, the three children did something unusual. They scooped clay from the ground and smeared it on a stalagmite at different heights. The group then exited the cave.
Biggest Fossil Whale
2006, a farmer in Matera arrived at a lake and found enormous vertebrae
near the shore. It turned out to be the biggest whale fossil ever
discovered. The creature was a blue whale, a species still alive today
and famous for being the largest animal in existence, past and present.
individual measured 25.9 meters (85 ft) long, but more surprising was
its age. The mammal cruised the seas 1.5 million years ago. This was
much earlier than when giant whales supposedly became a thing.
Considering that behemoths evolve as such, big whales must have existed
far earlier than the Matera blue whale.
There is a debate
surrounding baleen whales. Some scientists believe that they became
bigger during a short period of time. Others believe that their body
size increased gradually.