The Majella has welcomed groups of humans beginning in the Palaeolithic period, when Homo erectus and then Homo sapiens first appeared, as shown by the finds in the sites of Valle Giumentina, Grotta degli Orsi and Grotta del Colle. During the Neolithic period (6600 – 4500/4000 BC), thanks to a change in the environment and to the arrival from the east of agricultural peoples, a new, more stable community began to develop, which preferred to settle in tiny villages, raise animals and produce pottery to cook and preserve food.
The largest settlement in this period was the village of Fonti Rossi in Lama dei Peligni. Its discovery in 1914 began the idea of the so-called Man of the Majella. Additional proof of continual occupation from the beginning of the Neolithic period until the end of the Bronze Age was found in the Grotta dei Piccioni (Bolognano), located on a rocky outcrop dropping steeply down to the River Orta. Discovered in 1954, the cave was used mainly as a place of worship and was frequented intensely by shepherds and their flocks. It has revealed light axes, sickles, flint fragments, millstones, pestles, obsidian, ornamental shells and pottery.
The Bronze Age, barely distinguishable from the preceding period to which the pottery, bronze artefacts and cave and rock paintings have been dated back, can be found in numerous locations, such as Tocco da Casauria, Bolognano, Caramanico, Serramonacesca, Pretoro, Rapino, Pennapiedimonte, Fara San Martino, Rivisondoli, Pacentro and at Madonna degli Angeli. From the late Bronze Age, sheep farming played a vital role in the economy of these communities, thanks to a dry, ocean climate, excellent for vegetation growth and the subsequent increase in farming activities.
The Iron Age was the moment in which what is known as the “Apennine civilisation” stabilised to fully represent the Italic people. The territory was organised into a crown of fortified settlements, built on the highlands surrounding the plain, with the exception of the eastern border, defended naturally by Mount Morrone.
The Italic period saw the development of the Picene civilisation which gave rise to fortified settlements perched on top or along the slopes of the Apennines. The various tribes, such as the Peligni, were organised into a sort of city state, called touta, guided by an annually elected leader with two assemblies. In the pre-Roman era, the territory was divided into pagi which, in turn, were divided into one or more vici. Around the Majella massif stand the towns of Corfinium, Sulmo, Interpromium, Cluviae and Iuvanum. Within this framework of settlements, the sanctuaries, such as the one at Sulmona dedicated to Hercules Curino, played an important role.
During the Augustan principality, Abruzzo and Molise were placed into the IV region Sabina e Samnium and the territory of Peligno was divided into three districts, each guided by a municipium: Corfinium (Corfinio), Sulmo (Sulmona) and Superaequum (Castelvecchio Subequo). During this period, sheep farming became popular once again and the road network was extended to transform some of the ancient drovers’ roads into large arteries. The region was now connected to Rome by the main road of Via Valeria, later to become Claudia Valeria, which led to Pescara. The main road also crossed the Via Claudia Nova (from Amiterno) and the Via Minucia, which crossed the Peligno territory passing through Sulmona.
In the Middle Ages, the Longobard invasion of 568 AD and the subsequent domination by the Franks at the end of the 8th century assailed this region, lying half way between the Duchy of Spoleto and the Duchy of Benevento. The place names still preserve evidence of the Longobards in the Majella area and similarly, the worship of San Michele Arcangelo, protector of converted Longobards, became popular. From the 9th century, an extensive network of monasteries grew throughout the territory under the three important abbey centres of San Vincenzo in the Volturno area, Montecassino and San Clemente in Casauria. Between the 11th and 12th centuries, a process of encastellation took place throughout the Majella area when, encouraged by the monastic or lay seigniories, the population settled in proper villages in dominating positions, surrounded by walls to protect themselves from invasions.
From 1140 onwards, the Normans under Ruggero II were garrisoned in this area and annexed it to the Regnum Siciliae. Frederick II unified the region’s administration and established Sulmona as the capital. Things remained thus until, in 1254, L’Aquila was founded.
The Majella territory in the late Middle Ages saw stories of feudal and local seigniories, such as Cantelmo and Caldoras, intertwine with those from Naples and Rome. During the Angevin period and again in the Aragona period, the area played a vital role in the peninsular. From the 12th to the 16th centuries, some towns grew considerably along the Apennine dorsal, such as L’Aquila, Popoli, Sulmona, Castel di Sangro, and some mountain villages working in the droving industry (the latter still the linchpin of the Majella economy until the end of the 18th century). Artisans specialised in working stone, wood, wrought iron and stuccoes came from Lombardy and settled in Abruzzo after the earthquake of 1456.
Although between the 17th and mid 19th century we can speak of a bourgeois mountain civilisation, consisting of a well-to-do, highly cultured class, under the Unity of Italy conditions of life on the Majella changed radically and there was a profound crisis, with the exodus of the bourgeoisie and a high rate of migration.
In the 19th century, brigands spread across the area, as shown by “La Tavola dei Briganti” [Brigands’ Table], large slabs of rock that had slid down Mount Cavallo in front of the Orfento Gorge, on which the brigands, shepherds and probably all those who had come to this place, a sort of general headquarters according to local tradition, had carved their names, thoughts, brief writings, invectives, homelands and left them for eternity. Amongst these inscriptions, the most famous is the one that reads “in 1820 Vittorio Emanuele II king of Italy was born. Before it was a kingdom of flowers now it is the kingdom of destitution.”