Off the beaten track
Grimaldi - Caves and prehistory in Liguria

Traveller's Memories: index

The Caves and Museum of Balzi Rossi

The Caves of "Balzi Rossi" (Red Stones) are close to Italian French border line in Liguria, Grimaldi village, near the town of Ventimiglia.
The caves opens at the bottom of a rocky wall, two steps from the sea, made of Jurassic-Dolomite limestone whose high is about 100 meters. The name of the place come from the color of the rocks and from the local dialect words "Baussi Russi" (Red Stones). The site consists of 7 caves named: Cave of Costantini, Cave of the Children, Cave of Florestano, Cave of Caviglione, Barma Grande (Barma means cave and Grande means big), Barma du bausu da ture (whose meaning in my dialect is Cave of the rock of the tower) and Cave of the Prince.
Only Cave of Caviglione and Florestano can be visited but the two very nice museums offer a wide and detailled introduction on the contents of the caves as well as a lot of skeletons, images and objects found during the archeological excavations.
The museum is always open, there are brochures in many languages and the entrance fee (museum plus grottoes) is very cheap. From my point of view it worths a visit! If you need more information, feel free to e-mail me.
The caves was frequented by man since Inferior Paleolithic, Tracks of these ancient presence are very limited because of the frequent variations of the sea level occurred during climate fluctuations of Pleistocene. The most ancient bones found belonged to a female of Homo Erectus (absolute age over 230,000 year ago) lived during the Riss Glaciation.
As soon as the sea water receded, over 80,000 year ago, the man resumed to frequent the caves leaving there traks of firesides and stone carving as shown by these pictures.

On the above right engraving it is still possible to see the profile of an horse.
The men who lived during Middle Paleolithic did not leave any skeleton but it is supposed they belonged to Man of Neanderthal. This group of inhabitants continued to live in the caves during the two fases of Wur Glaciation (from 80,000 to 40,000 years ago).
Only the men of Superior Paleolithic (Homo Sapiens Sapiens) used the caves as sepulchre, leaving there the most interesting testimonies; during excavations, archeologists discovered many Paleolithic buries and the so called "Man of Menton". That particular bury contained one single skeleton lied on left side with his hands near the face and the legs lightly bent as well shown by the picture below.

Bones and soil around it showed an intense red color, caused by powder of ochre the bury was sprinkled with. The skull was adorned with marine shells and pierced canine teeth of stag, once fixed on a kind of hat. The radius putted out of shape, a recovered fracture, shows the man has overcame a serious trauma.
In each dug bury there was only male skeletons whose high was around 1.80 or 1.90 meters, the most high in the European Paleolithic population.
The buried man has many affinities with the Man of Cro-Magnon, one of the human type lived during the Superior Paleolithic whose disgnostic traits was a short face with rectangular eye-socket, the high robustness of the skeleton and the high stature.
The kind of buries discovered seem to put on light the social importance of those guys.
Two skeletons of children whose ages was about 2 and 3 years was discovered inside the Cave of the Childrens.

They was put down one beside the other; at the level of the hip and femur (or thigh-bone) there was a lot of pierced marine shells (Nassa Neritea) that seem to be part of a garment.
The most peculiar bury found was the Triple Bury. The three guys has been buried in the same grave, side by side and sprinkled with red ochre and accompained by a rich equipment. Two of them was young guys while the third one more old.

The same anatomical difference found on the right side of the front bone of the skull suggests a genetic relationship between the three guys. The old one was about 1.90 meters high and has a remarkable skeletric robustness.
The funeral equipment consisted on big blades of stone, necklaces, decorations made by spine bones of fishes and canine teeth of stag, ivory pendants decorated

with dash engravings and pierced shells (Nassa Neritea).
Between the various discovers, the last, most arousing was the finding of the so called Negroids of Grimaldi. The tomb contained the skeletons of an adolescent and an adult woman but with different traits from the other buried guys.

The head of the adolescent was adorned by a cap (bonnet) made of marine shells (Nassa Neritea), while the woman had the same shells near the left wirst and elbow, perhaps used as a bracelet. The bury of two people happened in two different periods and the insufficient regards kept on buring the woman suggests a funerary model acts to give importance to the male figure, just as it seems each bury discovered in the Balzi Rossi area.
All the buries can be dated back to the period called Gravettian or Epigravettian, a temporal gap from 29,000 to 19,000 years ago.

The Venus of Balzi Rossi are little female statues made during the Superior Paleolithic era, distinguished by a kind of Gravettian stone industry (from 29,000 to 21,000 years ago). They are bone, stone or ivory made statues whose high is about 10 centimeters. Their shape present an exaggeration of the volume of breasts, stomach and sides, while the other part of the body and legs are underdimensioned.

These little statues let us advance hypotesis about the aspect of prehistoric women: they could be very similar to the Hottentot women, with an important reserve of fat at the level of buttocks.

Traveller's Memories: index
© Paolo Botton