Neanderthals Ate Each Other and Used Their Bones as Tools

Illustration for article titled Neanderthals Ate Each Other and Used Their Bones as Tools

For over a century, paleoanthropologists have been fascinated by a gory question: were Neanderthals cannibals? In recent years, we’ve found remains that suggest cannibalism did exist in various parts of southern Europe but new remains found in northern Europe add further evidence to the “yes” answer and tell us more about why cannibalism was practiced.

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Cannibalized remains have been found in Spain, France, and other parts of southern Europe but, according to a recent study published in Scientific Reports, these new remains are from the Goyet region of Belgium and are the first in northern Europe.

All the remains found at the site—human, horse, reindeer—show cut marks where muscle and bone were separated and “percussion” marks that show that bones were crushed to extract the marrow. Because the Neanderthals ate horse and reindeer, and because no modern humans were in the area, the researchers believe that these similar cut marks on human bones confirm cannibalism.

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Neanderthals didn’t just eat each other either. They also used bones as tools to sharpen stones, and may “have been aware that they were using human remains.”

That being said, lest the reader think that cannibalism are just par for the course, remains found at other sites have contained uneaten, buried remains, showing that it was not a universal practice. At the Goyet site, the researchers claim that cannibalism was probably not part of a funerary rite.

So why cannibalism here? Desperation.

According to radiocarbon dating, the bones are about 40,500 to 45,500 years old, around the time the Neanderthals died in Europe. DNA testing shows that the Neanderthals in northern Europe are genetically similar to those in southern regions, which means that there weren’t a lot of them left.

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Many remains show evidence of malnutrition and so, given these factors, it’s likely that Neanderthal cannibalism was—as with famous cases like the Donner party myth—a result of food shortages and the “you gotta go what you gotta do” mindset. (However, given that cannibalism isn’t simply morally distasteful but is also unhealthy, it’s unclear how much the last-ditch attempt helped.)

Even after the cannibalism, the Neanderthals obviously died out. However, they live on in one important way: Some of their DNA lives on in us and continues to affect humanity.

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[Atlas Obscura]

Angela Chen is the morning editor at Gizmodo.

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DISCUSSION

These aren’t new remains, they are re-analyzed specimens taken from collections excavated 110 years ago.

Dated 40,500 - 45,500 years ago....5,000 years. To be clear, this is like saying a thing happened sometime between pre-dynastic Egypt and sometime in the 20th century +/- 100 years, a fudge factor of 250-300 generations. (narrowed to 1500 years in the published article...so, fall of Roman empire to now).

Not all Neander sites show cannibalism.

...and may “have been aware that they were using human remains.”

The full quote continues: “...Whether this was part of a symbolic activity or induced by a functional motivation cannot be attested [as was the case elsewhere].” So eating each other means what...purposeful random kill and consume? Starving, so eat the dead guy? Captured dead from fighting, “eat the enemy”? Regular fighting between males for control? Ceremonial eating of recently deceased by accident or disease? One deranged cannibal’s detritus collected during his lifetime? Can’t tell. It doesn’t help that the stratigraphy is messed up by poor excavation practices in 1900.

Almost 150 years after the first identification of Neandertal skeletal material, the cognitive and symbolic abilities of these populations remain a subject of intense debate.

...generating heated debates following the revision of old data...

This research doesn’t resolve that debate, it just adds more data. It is interesting of course. But inferences about social or symbolic behavior is wild-ass guessing, er...looking for nails to use a hammer on, anthropomorphizing (do they allow big words like this on Kinja?).

I’m not saying the researchers are wrong, or this article too superficial (well... it is). I’m pointing out the wider complexity and difficulty in framing the topic on a time scale.