ECHO Molise
  Emigration and Cultural Heritage of the Molise
Earliest Inhabitants

750,000 Years Ago


They had been there before.  They came to scavenge, perhaps to hunt.  They came “armed with a shaky hold on fire and some sharp rocks.” (Boez and Ciochon)  They camped on the grassland under sparse trees, between a free-flowing stream and a mud flat.  And when they left, they left behind Europe’s oldest confirmed evidence of human presence—

La Pineta, Isernia, Molise.

The Land--Paleolithic Molise

Marine fossils from Lake Occhieto near Macchia ValfortoreFrom its creation 250 million years ago, the Tethys Sea covered the land of modern Italy, laying down limestone deposits under its shallow waters. 
Subsequent earth movement and climate fluctuations changed the surrounding sea level, incised a gorge around the Biferno River (opens map) and deposited marine sediment as the river periodically crossed the seabed.

The Matese mountain of Western Molise rose up as a giant slab of this Mesozoic limestone.  Additional pressure from the southwest pushed and folded flysch deposits, giving rise to the hills from Boiano to the Adriatic.

 Tethys Sea

Much of the surrounding ocean was taken up into ice caps during ice age glaciation, extending the Italian land mass beyond the modern-day coastline.  Interglacials (periods when warmer climates melted the ice caps) would again give rise to the sea level and re-cover the land mass.


About 2 ½ million years ago, these glacials and interglacials settled into major cycles of about 100,000 years.  About 1 million years ago, the climate changed again.  Cold phases became colder and more arid (probably caused by rising Mediterranean mountain belts such as the Apennines.) 


The Molise of 1 million years ago faced two annual seasons—a long, cold, arid winter and a short, arid summer.  Artemisia and steppe grass dominated the steppe grassland, swamp cypress the coastal areas, and conifers (e.g., pine, beech and fir) the higher elevations.  In winter, the highest mountains experienced glaciation. (Barker, Mussi)


It was from this ever-changing, ever-forming Paleolithic period that we find evidence of the earliest inhabitants of the Molise—Homo erectus.

Homo Erectus of Isernia (Homo Aeserniensis)

During the Lower Pleistocene, the Isernia Basin was covered by one of the many lakes created by the earth movements which were forming the Apennines.   The lakes and surrounding streams and mud flats attracted not only animals from the arid grasslands, but also those “opportunistic scavengers” known as early man, Home erectus.


Homo erectusAppearance.  Below the neck, Homo erectus looked similar to Homo sapiens, although taller with denser leg bones.  They had black hair and brown eyes, averaged    5 foot 10 inches and walked upright efficiently, with the gait of modern man.  Their skulls, however, were considerably thicker and smaller than Homo sapiens, with capacity to hold a brain about the size of a modern 1 year old’s. 


Language.  Their voice box was primitive, capable of making just a few sounds, similar to chimps and gorillas.  However, chimps and gorillas are capable of communicating more than 200 concepts, using a combination of sounds and gestures.  Homo erectus, with a brain capacity four times that of a chimp, apparently used limited but cooperative communication within the clan.  As the ability to  communicate developed, so did the success of “ambush hunting” seen in later Homo erectus.


Culture.  They lived brutal lives, “ruled by hunger and who could strike the hardest blow.” (Boez and Ciochon)  Although their culture indicated ritualized aggression, Homo erectus cared for their own with a high degree of solidarity.  This species was the first of the hominins to show increased length of childhood (and therefore, parental care).  They did not bury their dead.  [Some anthropologists believe ritualistic burial indicates a belief in an after-life; others propose that both the rite and the belief would require a language sufficiently complex to communicate across generations.] 

Graeme Barker's Biferno Survey (links to Archaeology page) found the richest collection of early Paleolithic finds (flakes, blade fragments, retouched scrapers, etc.) in the middle Biferno River valley: one site southwest of Casacalenda Scrapers and Choppersand another just south of Lupara.  But the majority of find-sites contained few pieces, and bi-faced tools (e.g., hand axes) were found in isolation.  This data suggests the "pieces were portable multipurpose tools that were taken off site to be used elsewhere..." (Barker)  From this, he concluded earliest Molise inhabitants consistently used lower elevations for residence, with forays into the middle valley for more "specific" tasks (such as hunting or gathering stone for flaking).

.  Homo erectus probably hunted sH. erectus used natural firemall game and scavenged, but lacked tools to hunt big-game. Like African Bushmen or Australian Aboriginals, their diet consisted of what was available--snakes, birds, eggs, locust, scorpions, tortoises, mice, fleshy leaves, nuts, roots and seeds. (Boez and Ciochon)  They could cut meat from dead and dying large game but not hunt it efficiently.  They generally settled open-air sites (not caves) and needed large territory (the La Pineta site is about 30,000 square meters) because their “ambush hunting” techniques were wasteful—scaring animals off cliffs or into bogs, killing more animals than they could eat. 


Further, they generally ate just the softer organs (brains, liver, bone marrow), unable to consume the muscular parts until later, when they learned to use fire to cook and soften the meat.  [Homo erectus used naturally occurring fire, but probably could not make it.  Therefore, their use of fire was sporadic and inconsistent.] (Boez and Ciochon) 


These are the people who came to La Pineta Isernia--to scavenge, to hunt--750,000 years ago.  They left behind their tools and flint flakes from sharpening them.  In one area near the stream, they laid the bones of animals they butchered-elephant, deer, bison, rhinos, hippos, bear, pig and goat.  After they left the La Pineta campsite for perhaps the fourth time, mud flat deposits silently buried the bones, flint flakes and other evidence of their presence for ¾ of a million years—until roadwork in 1978 uncovered the artifacts. 

La Pineta artifacts


No human bones were uncovered at La Pineta, only evidence of human presence.  A partial human skull cap was discovered (again during road construction) in Ceprano, near Rome, in 1994—a discovery which could pre-date the Isernia find (possibly from 900,000 years ago).  The oldest human bone fragments (partial skull and jawbone with full teeth) from Europe were discovered in Georgia in 1991, possibly dating from 1.7 million years ago.  However, La Pineta is still considered the oldest confirmed human settlement in Europe.     

Visit La Pineta

Today, Isernia visitors can view the (tentative) UNESCO world heritage excavation site at La Pineta and the uncovered artifacts at Isernia’s Museum of Santa Maria delle Monache.

For more information, also see


Barker, Graeme.  A Mediterranean Valley:  Landscape Archaeology and Annales History in the Biferno Valley.  Leicester University Press:  1995. 
Leicester University Press: 1995.


Berleant, Riva.  Paleolithic Flints: Is an Aesthetics of Stone Tools Possible?”  Contemporary Aesthetics, , 2007.


Boaz, Noel Thomas and Russell L. Ciochon.  Dragon Bone Hill: An Ice-Age Saga of Homo Erectus.  Oxford University Press US, 2004.


Glynn, Ian.  An Anatomy of Thought:  The Origin and Machinery of the Mind.  Oxford University Press US, 2003.


Mussi, Margherita.  Earliest Italy: an Overview of the Italian Paleolithic and Mesolithic.  New York:  Springer Publishing, 2001. “World Heritage Tentative Lists:”  The Lower Palaeolithic Palaeosurfaces at Isernia-La Pineta and Notarchirico, 2006.


University of Ferrara. “Projects-Isernia La Pineta.”

Wilson, Andrew.  “The Emergence of European Civilisation.”, 2008.



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