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Italian archaeologists discover fossilised remains of nine Neanderthals in Rome

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Rome: Italian archaeologists have uncovered the fossilised remains of nine Neanderthals in a cave near Rome, shedding new light on how the Italian peninsula was populated and under what environmental conditions.

The Italian Culture Ministry announced the discovery Saturday, saying it confirmed that the Guattari Cave in San Felice Circeo was "one of the most significant places in the world for the history of Neanderthals." A Neanderthal skull was discovered in the cave in 1939.

The fossilised bones include skulls, skull fragments, two teeth and other bone fragments. The oldest remains date from between 1,00,000 and 90,000 years ago, while the other eight Neanderthals are believed to date from 50,000-68,000 years ago, the Culture Ministry said in a statement.

The excavations, begun in 2019, involved a part of the cave that hadn't yet been explored, including a lake first noted by the anthropologist Alberto Carlo Blanc, who is credited with the 1939 Neanderthal skull discovery.

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini called the finding "an extraordinary discovery that will be the talk of the world".

Anthropologist Mauro Rubini said the large number of remains suggest a significant population of Neanderthals, "the first human society of which we can speak".

Archaeologists said the cave had perfectly preserved the environment of 50,000 years ago. They noted that fossilised animal remains found in the cave - elephant, rhinoceros and giant deer, among others - shed light on the flora and fauna of the area and its climactic history.

But almost 20 years since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam's dictatorship, promising democracy and prosperity, Iraqis are still waiting to for an economic upturn.

Diwaniya is home to Nippur, the ancient Sumerian city and jewel of Iraq's glorious Mesopotamian past with its temples, libraries and palaces.

Seven thousand years ago Nippur, now in southern Iraq, was one of the main religious centres of the Akkadians and later the Babylonians.

Much of that site was looted after Saddam's fall from power by armed bandits and many others destroyed by jihadists who seized swathes of Iraq in 2014 until their defeat three years later.

"Investing in these sites would create jobs in our province, which is poor and has few investment opportunities," Shaalan said.

But there is another problem beyond renovation and preservation, Jlihawi said. If they came, "where would the tourists go?" he asked.

"There's nothing for them -- the roads haven't been paved since the 1980s, the electricity poles are from the 1970s," in a country with chronic shortages of electricity and water.

Energy-rich Iraq suffered due to a decline in world oil prices and has been struggling with rising prices, high unemployment and poverty, which doubled last year to 40 percent amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

- Returned to dust -

Historical sites in the central province of Kirkuk are also in a sad state of disrepair and "neither authorities nor private organisations are doing anything for heritage", said resident Muhammad Taha.

He pointed to the 3,000-year-old citadel and the "qishla", an Ottoman-era garrison, where chunks of mosaics have crumbled while sections of wall threaten to crash down.

Like Nippur, the citadel's deterioration could mean it might not be promoted from UNESCO's Tentative List of heritage sites to the coveted World Heritage List.

Local authorities said frequent heavy rains that batter the mountainous region are to blame.

Iraq is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, according to the United Nations.

Galloping desertification in a country where desert already covers 50 percent of the territory is threatening human and animal life, and has sounded death knells for Mesopotamian sites as well as recent constructions.

Abdullah al-Jlihawi from Diwaniya recalled that between the 1960s and the 1980s archeological ruins "were protected by the green belt".

But trees that had blocked the wind were burned, blasted apart by shelling during successive Iraqi wars or felled to make way for new towns.

Scorching summer temperates above 50 degrees (122 Fahrenheit), dust storms and heavy winter rains have also dealt blows to Iraqi heritage.

And many fear that sites built with bricks made thousands of years ago by Mesopotamian labourers will one day soon turn back into dust.

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