Advertisement

A Look at Neanderthals as Cannibals

TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

It is dinner time at a sheltered encampment on the west bank of a meandering river in what one day--about 100,000 years hence--the restaurant guides will call modern France. Around a makeshift hearth, a family of Neanderthals prepares an evening meal.

Displaying the culinary skill of a primordial Jacques Pepin, these evolutionary second cousins of modern humans cut apart the carcass and fillet the choicest cuts with razor-edged flint knives. They slice out the tender tongue. Then, with blunt hammer stones and a makeshift stone anvil, they adroitly crack long leg bones for the rich marrow within.

They are dining on their own kind.

That is how a team of French and American researchers has reconstructed the evidence of stone tools and manhandled bones excavated from ancient campsite debris at the Moula-Guercy cave site by the Rhone River north of Marseilles. The site dates from 100,000 years to 120,000 years ago, but new evidence from other sites suggests that Neanderthals could have roamed Europe as recently as 28,000 years ago.

Advertisement

In all, six Neanderthals--two adults, two teenagers and two children--were butchered at the campsite in the same manner as the red deer whose fossilized remains were found mixed in with the 78 pre-human bone fragments.

The site offers the first definitive proof that Neanderthals practiced cannibalism, several scientists at the Laboratoire d’Anthropolgie in Marseilles and UC Berkeley said. Their findings were published recently in the journal Science.

Long dismissed in the popular mind as burly, brutish knuckle-walkers, the Neanderthals who thrived in Europe and the Middle East have come under intense scrutiny in recent years.

Were Neanderthals direct human ancestors or an evolutionary dead end? Why did they vanish 25,000 to 30,000 years ago? Did they have a true language and know art? Did they honor their dead or despoil them?

Advertisement

Certainly, any reliable insight into Neanderthal behavior--however scandalous or taboo it might be to contemporary sensibilities--sheds light on the roots of the human family tree, experts said.

Since the turn of the century, many archeologists and paleoanthropologists have argued that at least some Neanderthals were cannibals.

Other experts insisted, however, that wild animals were more likely the cause of any unusual marks on fossil hominid bones. And when researchers discovered what appeared to be Neanderthal graves, with traces of buried garlands, experts were quick to say the finds were proof these long-extinct people treated their dead with ceremonial respect.

But now there are second thoughts. The 1991 discovery of the bones and tools at Moula-Guercy, and now their analysis, is the most compelling evidence yet that Neanderthals, skilled hunters who used wooden spears to bring down prehistoric game, may also have preyed on each other.

Advertisement

“It answers the century-old question about whether there were cannibals among the Neanderthals,” said Tim D. White, director of UC Berkeley’s Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies.

“Combined with the Neanderthal evidence that has been argued about for all this time, it suggests that cannibalism in the Paleolithic was more widespread than previously thought,” White said. “This looks like a broader pattern of behavior, through time and across space.”

White is one of five researchers collaborating with Alban Defleur of the Laboratoire d’Anthropolgie in Marseilles, who excavated the site and analyzed the remains.

*

Advertisement

From the layer cake of time represented in the cave floor sediments, Defleur unearthed at least six individuals. Two were adults of uncertain age, two were immature 15- or 16-year-olds, and two were children, 6 or 7 years old.

The skeletons had been cut apart and the braincases smashed. Long bones were shattered, with only hand and foot bones left intact.

“We have every sliver of bone, so we can refit fragments to understand how the butchery was done, how the tissue was removed from the bone and how the marrow was acquired,” White said. “These are truly unique traces.”

The stone blades left telltale cutting marks on the bones that are unmistakable signs of butchery, White and Defleur concluded.

Advertisement

Unlike microscopic grooves left by animal teeth, the tool marks are characteristically jagged, showing how the uneven edge of the sharp flint dragged across the bone. The V-shaped marks also have striations that mirror the stone edge “the way a shot bullet matches a rifle bore,” White said.

Although there is ample evidence of camp fires in the cave, the bones themselves show no trace of fire, suggesting that the flesh either was cut away before being roasted or was eaten raw.

Patricia Valensi of the Laboratoire de Prehistoire du Lazaret in Nice, France, analyzed the hundreds of animal bones found with the Neanderthal fragments and determined that the animals had been butchered in an identical manner.

“If we conclude that the animal remains are the leftovers from a meal, we’re obliged to expand that conclusion to include humans,” said Defleur.

Advertisement

There is nothing at the site, however, that proves who cut up the Neanderthal carcasses. Since the only hominids known to have lived in Europe at the time were Neanderthals, White said, they must have been responsible.

Even so, the reason for the cannibalism at Moula-Guercy is a mystery. Was it a last resort to stave off starvation, as with the infamous Donner party stranded for a winter in the snowdrifts of Northern California? Was it part of a primitive religious ritual, like the human sacrifices of the Aztecs and ancient Maya? Or were the remains scavenged from the kill of some other predator?

Now that anthropologists know what to look for, however, White and his colleagues expect it will be only a matter of time before the remains of other grisly Neanderthal feasts are identified.

“Comparing the number of [known] Neanderthal burials with the number of instances of Neanderthal cannibalism, it looks like cannibalism was a fairly regular phenomenon,” White said. “When the nonhuman remains from already excavated sites are rechecked, I’ll bet that we find more pieces of Neanderthals that were misidentified or unidentified.”

Advertisement


Advertisement
Advertisement