2015 GSA Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, USA (1-4 November 2015)

Paper No. 218-9
Presentation Time: 9:00 AM-6:30 PM


PIZZORUSSO, Ann C., Independent Geologist, 511 Ave of the Americas, Suite 318, New York, NY 10011, annj441@gmail.com

Italy is filled with miraculous caverns. In fact, the whole country seems to be dotted with them, much like Swiss cheese. These are the recesses which, since the dawn of time have served a multitude of purposes for man: shelter, sustenance and sanctuaries. One of the most mysterious cult caverns in the region is the Grotta di Scaloria in Manfredonia. Found in 1932, the cavern was filled with carefully painted vases which were used to capture the drip water of the stalactites.

Just how such cave waters may have been used in deep antiquity comes into sharp focus during the Etruscan and Roman periods, when the cloudy, mineral-laden liquid issuing forth from the mammiform stalactites was collected for use as an emollient to ensure nursing mothers produced ample breast milk. Such caverns came to be known as milk caves (lattaie) with the slightly supersaturated waters they produced called mountain milk (latte di monte) or moonmilk (latte di luna). The term moonmilk is a reference to an early notion that the substance was produced when the Moon’s rays flowed through rock. Among the best-known of these caves the Grotta Sant’Angelo at Palombaro in Abruzzo, dating to the Roman period. It was a sanctuary dedicated to a fertility goddess with four cisterns cut into the rock beneath large stalactites to collect drip water, her breast milk. This strong association of caves with breast milk is underscored by Rome’s founding myth of the royal twins Romulus and Remus, who were suckled in a cave by a she-wolf.

So what might account for the purported healing properties of moonmilk? The secret lies in the presence of Macromonas bipunctata, a microbe composed largely of calcium carboxylate (CaCO3), which plays a key role in metabolizing organic acids along with a host of cyanobacteria, fungi, green algae and actinomycetes. The latter is a group of Gram-positive bacteria that are a naturally occurring antibiotic. Collectively, these agents are known to promote healing.