The fossil record of the Upper Valdarno is one of the main points of reference for the paleontology of land vertebrates of the European Plio-Pleistocene. Remains from this continental basin have been recorded since the late Renaissance, and systematically collected, described and preserved since the eighteenth century.
The Natural History Museum of the University of Florence, based on the Tuscan grand-ducal collections, is one of the principal depositaries, but collections of Valdarno fossils are well represented in other Tuscan institutions, such as the Paleontological Museum of Montevarchi, as well as in the great museums of Europe, such as those of London, Paris and Basle. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the French paleontologist Georges Cuvier had commenced a fruitful exchange of information with the Florentine Giovanni Fabroni. Drawings by Fabroni, and material from the Upper Valdarno, are mentioned and illustrated in the important Rechérches sur le Ossemèns fossils, in which Cuvier established several new species from material from the Upper Valdarno.
The Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum) of Basle holds a rich collection of mammal fossils accumulated over several decades from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The Swiss paleontologist, Ludwig Rütimeyer visited Florence and the Upper Valdarno around 1850, acquiring a first batch of specimens. His pupil and successor as director of the Basle museum, Hans Georg Stehlin, maintained contact with peasants and other residents of the Valdarno, acquiring a large quantity of fossils. A group photograph from the early 1900s which includes Filippo Brilli, "fossil-hunter", is held in the archives of the Naturhistorisches Museum. Brilli's name recurs frequently in the archives of the Museum in Florence, marking him out as the author of a great number of discoveries.
Some of the locations which yielded important collections, between the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, can still be identified today. One of these is known by the name "Inferno" or "Case Inferno", is near Terranova Bracciolini (province of Arezzo), in the vicinity of Casa Frata, another location rich in fossils discovered in more recent times. Here Lower Pleistocene strata, deposited in a fluvial lacustrine environment (Sintema di Montevarchi), are exposed. Amongst the great number of species from Case Inferno are: the fossil Villafranchian ape Macaca sylvana fiorentina; the southern elephant Mammuthus meridionalis; typical Villafranchian Cervidae and Bovidae, such as Pseudodama nestii, Eucladoceros dicranios, Leptobos etruscus, and Leptobos vallisarni; the two Equidae, Equus stehlini and Equus stenonis; the Etruscan rhinoceros Stephanorhinus etruscus; and numerous carnivores, such as Homotherium crenatidens, one of the sabre-tooth Felidae, the Tuscan panther Panthera gombaszoegensis, the cheetah Acinonyx pardinensis, and the lynx Lynx issiodorensis. Completing the list of carnivores are the great hyena Pachycrocuta brevirostris, the Etruscan dog and Etruscan bear, Canis etruscus and Ursus etruscus, and the pine marten Martes sp. Lastly, there are also the remains of small mammals, such Prolagus sp., one of the Ochotonidae, and the vole Mimomys savini.
Azzaroli A, De Giuli C., Ficcarelli G & Torre D. 1988. mammal succession of the Plio-Pleistocene of Italy. Memorie della Società Geologica Italiana 31, 213-218.
Text by Lorenzo Rook
Photographs by Stefano Dominici and from the archives of the Naturhistorisches Museum of Basle and the Natural History Museum of Florence.