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.
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.
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.
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.