RHD Student Valentina Vanghi – Recent field work in Italy!

22 Oct

Written by Valentina Vanghi

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During the first week of September 2015 my supervisor Dr. Andrea Borsato and went to Italy for sampling two caves: Frasassi cave (Central Italy) and Lamalunga cave (South Italy). I really enjoyed this great experience. It was also quite an intense field work session as we went caving every single day but the passion, the enthusiasm and the curiosity distracted us from our physical tiredness.

Frasassi is a very well decorated cave system with ca. 20 km of galleries. To access the galleries that we were interested in it was needed to be “speleo fit”. Some parts of the cave system required the knowledge of speleo techniques but thanks to two expert speleologists like Andrea (my supervisor) and Sandro (from the speleological society “CAI Fabriano”) I could learn what I needed to survive! This experience was very important for me as now I feel more confident and autonomous when caving. I love caving! Last year, during the first field work, we collected three samples for my PhD project. This year we sampled another three stalagmites that I am going to date at the University of Melbourne in October using the U-series method. So far, my stalagmites record covers a period of time that spans from ~350 kyr to ~95 kyr with a gap of ca. 50,000 years. We hope to fill this gap with these new samples in order to have a continuous record for the paleoclimate study of the region, which is the topic of my thesis.

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We also did some monitoring of the cave such as measuring the pCO2 (CO2 partial pressure of the cave atmosphere) and the pH of the drip water. In addition we collected drip water samples in 8 different sites. This “modern” water will be analysed for the δD and δO isotopes and we will do trace elements (cations and anions) analysis for comparison with the results of the same analyses performed on my stalagmites.

Lamalunga cave (Altamura) is very famous in Italy because it hosts a complete skeleton of a Neanderthal man entirely covered by calcitic crusts called coralloid speleothems. These human bones discovered in the early 90s have been dated by Lari et al. 2015 to ~130 kyr. No one entered the cave before this discovery. Today the access to the cave is forbidden to the general public. Only speleologists and researchers are allowed to enter. Therefore, this was for us a real privilege!

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We abseiled a 20 m pit before entering the cave. The interior is full of collapsed detritus from the cave roof and the floor is spectacularly covered by lots of fossil animal bones encrusted by calcite. After squeezing through a shallow passage and passing through two close stalagmitic columns, we entered a little chamber facing directly to the “abside dell’uomo” (human apsis) where this man has been “resting” for several tens of thousands years. This little room (which can only fit max 3 people) is decorated with stalactites, stalagmites, columns and coralloids that someone also named, because of their shape, cave pop-corns. With the light of our head-torches it looked like the inside of a little chapel. Every part contained something sacred and mystical. Then, stuck between some columns we could see the skeleton that once belonged to a person who was clearly sitting while waiting to pass away. It was nice to discuss and speculate between all of us about the possible story of this man. Certainly, we agreed that he arrived there with his legs but, what is the cause of his death?

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Meeting the “Altamura Man” was a very emotional experience and it is extraordinary to think that he remained hidden in this little cave for such a long time and that he still holds lots of secrets.

Our research goal is to confirm the Neanderthal’s age of 130 kyr and for this reason we sampled calcitic crusts (coralloid speleothems) covering the bone to obtain a post-quem age of the skeleton. We also collect in other rooms of the cave some stalagmites to do paleoclimate study. Some monitoring similar to that of Frasassi cave was performed as well.

In conclusion, I had a very great time during this field trip. Everything was very interesting and I learnt numerous new things. I went back home in Oz happy and with the luggage full of rocks!

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