Review of the Ceprano Calvarium in light of its new age


By Dr Rob Walsh (Lewis Research Unit)





The calvaria was excavated in March 1994, when a highway was being constructed near the town of Ceprano, some 55 miles south east from Rome.

The levels above and below the calvaria were dated to between 700 and 900 kyr. The calvaria, was thereby confidently dated to this period in geological history. I visited the excavation site and studied the calvaria itself in the late 1990’s under the guidance of the late Professor Antonio Ascenzi. During this time I compiled a dossier/project on the calvaria.


Eleven years ago I completed my study of the Ceprano Calvaria, appraising its affinities with other hominin prior to, and after its initial date of 700 -900 kyr.


In the past couple of years the calvaria has been re-dated to around 438 -431 kyr, making it much younger then previously reported, and possibly setting it in the clade Homo heidelbergensis.


In this paper I will again look at the calvarias affinities with other more contemporary crania from around Europe, the Far East and Africa, to gage its possible place in hominin evolution.


I still believe the calvaria is unique and has much value in today world of palaeoanthropology.








Re-dating the Ceprano calvarium


The new date for the calvaria, was obtained through a mixture of absolute dating and looking at the water molluscs found at the site. Volcanic tephra samples came out at 438,000 – 431,000 years old.

These new dates for the calvaria single out that is now in the domain of European H. heidelbergensis, slightly younger then the Maur mandible and the Boxgrove Tibia (both 480 kyr- see Fairweather Eden, by M. Pitts and M. Roberts 1998).


Comparisons with other H. heidelbergensis


Given the new date of the calvaria, it is now necessary to compare it with other contemporary hominin fossils to establish its affinities.

Arago 21: Over sixty fossils dating to approximately 400Ka have been excavated over a 25 year period at the Arago cave, Tautavel, France. Ceprano has a cerebral value of 1157 ccm3, which compares well with the   proposed value of 1150 to 1200 ccm3 for Arago 21 specimen. This 400Ka, Homo heidelbergensis, partial skull was discovered in 1971, has a flat receding forehead, with the facial area disproportionate to the anterior cranial fossa. The brow ridges resemble Ceprano in relation to the narrow frontal bone. The low orbits and somewhat broad nasal area also resemble the corresponding features on Ceprano. Arago 21’s inferorbital surface on the right aspect, is quite flat, in a plane that is coincident with the nasal aperture, similar to the later Neanderthals, but different to the hominids at Sima de los Husos. The thickness of the Ceprano right parietal in cross section is thicker than the corresponding area on Arago 21, suggesting a greater robusticity of the cranium. There are differences between the two craniums in the orientation of the nuchal plane, calibrating the archaic nature of the Ceprano calvarium (Tattersall 1995).


Petralona: Originally excavated in 1960 from the Petralona cave, north eastern Greece, this cranium is larger than Ceprano at a value of 1200 ccm3. It projects mosaic aspects of both Homo erectus and Neanderthal in appearance.

It has high parietals with a projecting front midline, also a retreating forehead, inflated zigomatic arches, and no angular torus, all reminiscent of a Neanderthal. However the angular occipital bone with a transverse torus effect is indicative of most Homo erectus, like Ceprano. The brow ridges are lower in position than Ceprano, and resemble the specimens from Brokenhill, Zambia (Tattersall 1995; Manzi et al., 2001).

Due to geographical separation, and the local pressures of ecological and environmental stresses, the Asian, Chinese, and European Homo erectus and their descendants would have accumulated different evolutionary novelties, as well as morphological changes in stature and physique. Biologically the separated hominids would have evolved genetic distance, which makes any determination on successful interbreeding across the old world questionable. Enough fragmentary evidence exists in Italy, in the form of hominid fossils and stone tools, to produce a table showing a hypothetical chronology (Manzi 1998; Villa 2001; Milliken 1997, 1998).



Ceprano calvarium facts and comparisons. Constructions of the calvarium, by La Sapienza scientists, and then Prof. Ron Clarke, from Witswatersrand university, Johannesburg, South Africa, and subsequently further additions by a multiple of scientists, such as Prof. M.A. de Lumley, Dr C. Lanoux, Dr. S. Ricci, and

Dr. F. Mallegni, have provided European palaeoanthropologists with a Homo erectus skull projecting unique morphological characteristics. Full details of the Ceprano reconstructions are available from the Journal of Human Evolution, Vol 31, Nov 1996, and Vol 39, Oct 2000 (Ascenzi et al., 1996, 2000; R.Clarke 2000).

Rightmire and Wood provide the criteria for Homo erectus typical features comparisons. When applied to the Ceprano calvarium, its similarities and differences with other Homo erectus crania, become apparent (Rightmire 1989).

Apparent features: a) Continuous supraorbital torus-large and continuous supraorbital ridges with a supratoral sulcus. b) Vault sides slope upward and medially from the base. c) Angular torus of the parietals. d) Cranial capacity between 850-1225cc e) Skull low, broad and elongated-a low but not a long cranial vault.     f) Postorbital constriction-minimal frontal breadth of 112mm is not as constrained as in other Homo erectus crania, (could relate to individual/geological variation). g) Sharply angled occipital bone with:                               i) highly placed /prominent nuchal crest              

ii) nuchal plane facing infero-posteriorly.        

h) Median saggital ridge-no metopic keeling as in other European/African erectus. Keeling only seems to occur in Australopithecines and Asian Homo erectus. i) Cranial wall unusually thick-Thick bone structure in vertical sides to vault, with a more inferiorly orientated plane than mid-Pleistocene Homo heidelbergensis, e.g. Petralona, Arago 21, and the Atapuercan specimens. j) Receding frontal contour- there is a slight median bump of the frontal squama, but

mainly a flat receding forehead. k) Maximum breadth across the angular torus or supramastoid crest-greatest width =161mm. l) Opistocranion coincident with inion-feature displayed in posterior aspect of Ceprano cavarium. m) Broad nasal area-large aspect to the Ceprano calvarium fronto-nasal suture. n) Sharply angulated occipital area-apparent on Ceprano calvarium-1st reconstruction gave an angle of 51degrees.       o) Discrepancy between inion and endinion-endinion some 22mm below inion. p) Lateral wing to supraorbital torus-this feature on the Ceprano calvarium is not anteriorly projected. q) Marked supramastoid crests-large and pronounced in anterior/side views. r) Prominent angular torus at mastoid angle-a feature well defined in the calvaria s) Presence of an occipital mastoid ridge-the calvarium has a medial to digastic fossa ridge on either side of the occipitomastoid suture. t) Juxtamastoid ridge-this is apparent although due to the preservation of the calvarium, a marked mastoid crest/supramastoid sulcus is not visible.

Marked suprameatal tegmen-this is visible on the calvarium, although not particularly well pronounced. v) Occipital torus, with supratoral sulcus-prominent feature on Ceprano calvarium.          

w) Large posterior branch of middle meningeal artery and vein-well defined on the calvarium.

Non apparent features: a) Long cranial vault-shortened in calvarium. b) Pronounced postorbital constriction-see ‘f’ in apparent features. c) Frontal keel-see ’j’ in apparent features. d) Straight junction of torus and frontal squama-there is a supratoral sulcus, and the plane above the torus and glabella is concave.   e) Coronal ridge. f) Nuchal area extended for muscle attachment. g) Flattened and rectangular parietal-calvarium is slightly curved although square in shape. h) Low temporal squama.       i) Small mastoid process. j) Marked mastoid crest-see ‘t’. k) Occipital torus continuous with angular torus and supramastoid crest.               l) Supernumerary bones lambda.    

Due to the preservation of the calvarium, even after reconstruction, many features ascribed to Homo erectus by both Rightmire and Wood are not assessable.

Other points to mention which are immediately apparent on the reconstructed calvarium are:


1. The thickness of the temporal at asterion=22mm (at 19mm only the Sangiran 31 compares favourably).

2. Continuous supraorbital torus/bursoidal in aspect and the calvarium has a continuous supraorbital torus of significant build.

3. There is a noticeable postorbital constriction index; M.9/M.44 X 100.

4. The calvariums frontal trait is not as extended as in other Homo erectus. Its index of minimum frontal breadth/biorbital breadth is only 84.8, compared with other Homo erectus/ergaster crania; (i) KNM-ER 3733=87.5 (ii) Sangiran 17= 86.1 (iii) Sambung=89.5

5. The frontal breadth index: (M.9/M.10 X 100)=89.8. This fits in with other adult Homo erectus crania as follows; (i) KNM-ER 3733=

89.8 (ii) Sangiran 17=83.2 (iii) Samburg=87.9 (Ascenzi et al 1996, 2000; Rightmire 1989).


The actual calvarium is thought to have belonged to an adult male of 30-40 years of age at time of death.

It compares most favourably in many aspects with Olduvai hominid 9 from Tanzania, which is older at 1.1-1.7Ma, as follows:


Ceprano vs OH9

Maximum cranial length     198mm       205mm


Occipital upper-scale index 48.4           43.9


Biorbital breadth                 125mm     123mm


Maximum frontal breadth   119mm     118mm


Minimum frontal breadth     106mm     100mm


Post orbital constriction index   84.8     81.3          


Supraorbital vertical thickness   18mm   21mm












I am grateful to the many scientists who assisted and supported me with advice and good wishes for my review of the Ceprano calvarium. I would particularly like to mention; Professor Chris Stringer and Rob Kruszynski (Human Origins Group, Natural History Museum, London, England). Professor Paul Palmqvist (Malaga University, Spain). Professor Phillip V Tobias (Sterkfontein Research Unit, Wits. University, South Africa). Dr Richard Roberts (La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia). Professor Dietrich Mania, Ursula Mania, and Professor Vlcek,(Bilzingsleben site, Germany). Gayle Spiller, (Archaeologist, England),Dr Richard Klein (Stanford University, USA). Professor Marta Lahr(Cambridge University, England). Louise Leakey (National Museums of Kenya, Keyna). Professor Roberta Hall and Professor Barbara Roth (Oregon University, USA).         Dr Marina Mosquera (Tarragona, Spain). Professor Giorgio Manzi, Professor Aldo Segre, and especially the late Professor Antonio Ascenzi (La Sapienza University, Rome, Italy).








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