Neanderthal Group Cannibalized their Dead and Used Human Bones as Tools
Evidence shows Neanderthals were killing each other and eating the remains about 40,000 years ago in a cave in Belgium, new research shows. They apparently extracted marrow from the bones and used the bones to shape stone tools. There is ample evidence from other sites in Europe of violence toward either living Neanderthals or their post-mortem remains that researchers have said points to cannibalism.
The collection of bones from Goyet caves doubles the number of known Neanderthal remains in Northern Europe, says a press release from the University of Tubingen. The researchers completely sequenced the remains’ mitochondrial DNA, doubling the database for Neanderthals, who went extinct about 30,000 years ago.
The bones show cutting and percussion tracks, which the researcher said are clear evidence of slaughter. The bones were used intensively and bear evidence of fragmentation, skinning and extraction of marrow. “This evidence suggests cannibalism among Neanderthals,” Hervé Bocherens, one of the researchers, says in the press release.
Highly fragmented remains of Neanderthals from a cave in Belgium show cutting and smashing. (Photo: Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences)
Researchers said it was impossible to know whether the Neanderthal remains were used exclusively as food or whether they were processed as part of symbolic or ritual actions.
“The numerous remains of horses and reindeer found in Goyet were processed in the same way,” Bocherens is quoted as saying.
Other Neanderthal sites where scientists found evidence of cannibalism include El Sidrón and Zafarraya in Spain and in Moula-Guercy and Les Pradelles in France.
The scientists used radiocarbon dating to place the age of the Goyet bones between 40,500 and 45,500 years.
These Neanderthal remains in what is now Belgium show the first evidence of cannibalism among Neanderthals in Northern Europe, the news release states.
Scholars excavated the third cavern of Goyet nearly 150 years ago. New methods of analysis and investigation, however, have allowed researchers to make new findings. The methods include digital measurement and description of the bones, study of the original deposition conditions, isotopic and genetic analysis.
The researchers said Neanderthals in Europe were closely related but differed significantly in their behaviors.
"The large differences in the behavior of these people on the one hand and their low genetic diversity on the other hand, give us a lot of questions about the social life and exchanges between different groups of the late Neanderthals," Bocerhens said.
At other sites, Neanderthals buried their dead. Also, the use of the Neanderthal bones to shape other tools, known as knapping, is unknown at other sites. At other sites it’s apparent that Neanderthals had more tools of different kinds.
This study follows another study, from April 2015, that determined “Neanderthals from the French region of Poitou-Charentes cut, beat and fractured the bones of their recently deceased companions, as revealed by the fossil remains of two adults and a child found at the Marillac site. These manipulations have been observed at other Neanderthal sites, but scientists still do not know whether they did this for food or ceremony. Scientists have discovered a large quantity of bone remains of these hominids.”
Homo sapiens have also been known to cannibalize each other. Here is a forensic recreation of a Neanderthal head. ( Cicero Moraes/CC BY SA 3.0 )
The Marillac site dates back about 57,000 years—or at least 12,000 years earlier than Goyet. Given this long range of time that Neanderthals were apparent cannibals, claims in other articles that the Neanderthals likely cannibalized themselves into extinction seem sensational.
A map depicting the range of the extinct Homo neanderthalensis (Wikimedia Commons/Ryulong)
Anthropologist Erik Trinkhaus, commenting in 2006 on Neanderthal remains from about 43,000 years ago in Spain that were skinned, defleshed and dismembered, said:
‘I think it's just these people were hungry. They had periods of seasonal starvation, and on occasion, when they are really starving and members of their social group are already dead, they consumed their remains. It's what I call survival cannibalism.’
Tübingen University professors Hervé Bocherens and Johannes Krause, along with Cosimo Posth and Christoph Wißingm, did the research.
Featured image: Painting of Neanderthals by Charles Robert Knight, 1920 (Wikimedia Commons)
By Mark Miller