Evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism discovered

This March 20, 2009 file photo shows reconstructions of a Neanderthal man (left) and woman at the Neanderthal museum in Mettmann, Germany. Scientists have now unearthed the first evidence of cannibalism among the ancient human relatives in the north of the Alps.  

Scientists have uncovered grisly evidence that shows Neanderthals butchered their own kind some 40,000 years ago, the first evidence of cannibalism among the ancient human relatives in the north of the Alps.

Neanderthal bones from an excavation in Goyet caves in Belgium have yielded evidence of intentional butchering, researchers said.

They also used bones as tools

The skeletal remains were radiocarbon-dated to an age of around 40,500 to 45,500 years. This group of late Neanderthals also used the bones of their kind as tools, which were used to shape other tools of stone. A review of the finds from the Troisieme caverne of Goyet identified 99 previously uncertain bone fragments as Neanderthal bones. That means Goyet has yielded the greatest amount of Neanderthal remains north of the Alps.

By making a complete analysis of the mitochondrial DNA of ten Neanderthals, the researchers doubled the existing genetic data on this species of humans which died out some 30,000 years ago. They confirmed earlier studies’ results, which showed relatively little genetic variation in late European Neanderthals — in other words, that they were closely related to one another.

Some Neanderthal remains from Goyet have been worked by human hands, as evidenced by cut marks, pits and notches.

Butchering it to the bone

The researchers see this as an indication that the bodies from which they came were butchered. This appears to have been done thoroughly; the remains indicate processes of skinning, cutting up, and extraction of the bone marrow.

“These indications allow us to assume that Neanderthals practised cannibalism,” said Herve Bocherens, professor at University of Tubingen in Germany.

Symbolic act or for food?

However, he adds that it is impossible to say whether the remains were butchered as part of some symbolic act, or whether the butchering was carried out simply for food.

“The many remains of horses and reindeer found in Goyet were processed the same way,” Professor Bocherens said.

Researchers have long debated the evidence of cannibalism among Neanderthals, which until now focused on the sites of El Sidron and Zafarraya in Spain and two French sites, Moula-Guercy and Les Pradelles.

Here is the first example

The Troisieme caverne of Goyet is the first example of this phenomenon from more northern parts of Europe.

Four bones from Goyet clearly indicate that Neanderthals used their deceased relatives’ bones as tools; one thigh bone and three shinbones were used to shape stone tools. Animal bones were frequently used as knapping tools.

Professor Bocherens said none of the other Neanderthal sites in the region have yielded indications that the dead were dealt with as they were in Goyet. On the contrary, they have yielded burials.

Researchers say that other northern European Neanderthal sites had a greater variety and arsenals of stone tools.

The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 10:48:58 AM |

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