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Sidron Cave

Grisly discovery in Spain reveals Neanderthal family was butchered and eaten

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Nearly a decade ago, a group of cave explorers stumbled upon a large collection of Neanderthal remains in the El Sidrón cave system in north western Spain. In new research presented to the Royal Society in London, scientists have revealed the grisly truth of how these Neanderthals died and what happened next.

Using modern forensics techniques, including DNA analysis, the researchers found that twelve Neanderthals, all from the same family, including three adult females, three adult males, three teenage boys and three children 2-9 years old, were all butchered and then eaten.

“We think Neanderthal groups were about 10-12 strong so this may have been a complete family group, although someone may have got away,” said biologist Carles Lalueza-Fox from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona.

The scientists found that the bones had been stripped of meat and cracked open to extract the marrow. The skulls were opened to eat the brains and tongues.

“I would guess they were killed in winter when food was short. There is no evidence of any fire so they were eaten raw immediately and every bit of meat was consumed. They even cut around the mandibles of the jaw to extract the tongues,” said Mr Lalueza-Fox.

The DNA of the remains was so well preserved, as a result of the cold temperatures in the cave, which is 60 feet underground, that the scientists were even able to determine hair colour and blood group.

The researchers have concluded that this was actually a case of cannibalism and that the family group were eaten by other Neanderthals, however, evidence for this seems a little thin on the ground.  

The scientists considered whether the Neanderthals had been killed by modern humans, however, dating on the bones revealed that the remains pre-dated homo sapiens in Spain by thousands of years.  Nevertheless, the actual date range of different hominid species, including modern humans, has been revised and updated numerous times in the last few years so it seems this option should not be ruled out. There is also the possibility that the culprits were another hominid group that resided in the area at the time. 

Finding out the true killers would help to shed light on the behaviours and eating habits of our ancient human ancestors.  However, hopefully this will not result in sweeping conclusions about the whole species, just as we would hope that finding evidence of cannibalism today would not lead to conclusions about the entire human race.

By April Holloway

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