Study Reveals Origins and Food Habits of First Sicilians

Analysis of skeletal remains found in an island cave in Favignana, Italy, has revealed that modern humans first settled in Sicily around the time of the last Ice Age and despite living on islands, ate little seafood.

The island of Favignana (Anto918 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The genetic analysis of the bones from the Grotta d’Oriente cave on the island of Favignana, the Egadi Islands, provides some of the first mitochondrial DNA data available for early humans from the Mediterranean region, a crucial piece of evidence in ancestry analysis. This analysis reveals the time when modern humans reached these islands.

“The definitive peopling of Sicily by modern humans only occurred at the peak of the last ice age, around 19,000 -26,500 years ago, when sea levels were low enough to expose a land bridge between the island and the Italian peninsula,” said Dr Marcello Mannino of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany, lead author of a paper in the open access journal PLoS-ONE.

Dr Mannino and his colleagues also analyzed the chemical composition of the human remains and found that these early settlers retained their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, relying on terrestrial animals rather than marine sources for meat.

This map shows location of upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites on the Ègadi Islands and on Sicily. These cave sites include: Grotta d’Oriente (1) and Grotta dell’Ucceria (2) on the island of Favignana; Grotta di Punta Capperi (3), Grotta di Cala dei Genovesi (3), Grotta Schiacciata (4) and Grotta di Cala Calcara (5) on the island of Levanzo; Grotta Maiorana (6), Riparo San Francesco (7), Grotta Martogna (8), Grotta Emiliana (9) and Grotta Maltese (9) on the mainland of Sicily (Mannino MA et al)

According to the study, despite living on islands during a time when sea level rise was rapid enough to change within a single human lifetime, these early settlers appear to have made little use of the marine resources available to them.

“These findings have crucial implications for studies of the role of seafood in the diet of Mediterranean hunter-gatherers,” the researchers concluded.

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Bibliographic information: Mannino MA et al. 2012. Origin and Diet of the Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers on the Mediterranean Island of Favignana (E`gadi Islands, Sicily). PLoS ONE 7(11): e49802; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0049802