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The Prehistoric ‘Human Skull’ Cave of Greece

Petralona Cave
Visitor route of the Petralona Cave. Credit: Carlstaffanholmer/Wikipedia

The “human skull” cave, or Petralona Cave in Halkidiki, northern Greece, is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Europe and is due to reopen soon to the public following restoration work.

The museum at the site of the cave hosts a rich collection of fossils and an unnerving human skull which dates back nearly 700,000 years, which is known as the “Petralona Skull.”

Petralona Cave is located in the western foothills of Mount Katsika, about 1 km (0.62 miles) east of the village of Petralona, about 50 km (31 miles) southeast of Thessaloniki on the Halkidiki peninsula.

Discovery of the Petralona Cave and the human skull

The cave and museum closed on Jan. 1, 2019, for works that would promote its importance, revamp the premises, and make it more visitor-friendly and accessible to mobility-impaired visitors.

Petralona Cave has an area of ​​about 10,000 square meters (107,639 square feet), with large chambers covered by colorful stalactite and stalagmite formations.

It was accidentally discovered by villagers who found many fossilized animal bones inside in 1959. In 1960 a human skull was found there; now covered in calcifications, it has part of a stalagmite seemingly growing through its forehead.

Petralona Cave
The Petralona skull is covered by the calcifications of a stalagmite. Credit: Nadina/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The skull is so perplexing in its morphology that some paleologists believe it represents an intermediate state between Homo neanderthalensis and its more primitive ancestor.

The “Petralona man” — as paleontologists named the skull — actually shares many common features with other Neanderthal fossils, but there are also very primitive features. In general, it has the face of a Neanderthal but the skull of an archaic type.

The skull was originally classified as “Homo neandertalensis”, but was later redefined as Homo erectus.

Today, however, most researchers agree that it belongs to the species of fossils found in Atapuerka and elsewhere in Europe, “Homo heidelbergensis”.

A more recent, extensive study of the morphology of the skull indicates more accurately that it is 300,000 or 400,000 years old.

This is particularly important for the study of the evolution of the human species as well as for its presence on the European continent.

Stalagmites and stalactites in enormous cave

After crossing an artificial tunnel, the visitor enters Petralona Cave, following a route about 300 meters long, passing through its main open spaces and chambers, where the magnificent stalagmites create a mesmerizing spectacle.

The ancient entrance of the cave is sealed now. It was a circular opening on the roof of a large hall, from which people and animals went in and out of the cave for dozens of millennia.

The stones and earth that used to fall from the opening over the years formed a huge cone, which gradually blocked the entrance completely.

Petralona Cave
Reconstruction of the chamber where “Petralona Man” was found. Credit: Sven Dittmar/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Excavations find much evidence from Chibanian age

Excavations carried out inside the cave, first by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and then by the Anthropological Society of Greece, yielded numerous findings from the Paleolithic Age.

The findings date from the Chibanian age, about 600,000 – 300,000 years ago. This makes the Petralona Cave one of the earliest archeological sites in Europe.

At that time the cave served as a shelter for humans and carnivorous animals. The humans and carnivores did not live together at the same time there, of course, but they alternated through the ages.

Bones that were from the animals eaten by its Paleolithic inhabitants testify to their hunting prowess and eating habits, and the stone tools found there are testimonies to their level of technology and material culture.

After people no longer lived in the cave, it served as a shelter for carnivorous animals, which carried their prey inside, leaving behind many scraps, mainly the bones of herbivorous animals.

The carnivores also often died in the cave; this explains the large quantities of bones that have been found, which are invaluable today as sources of information about the fauna and the environment of those periods.

Some of the finds are on display at the Anthropological Museum of Petralona, which is at the site.

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