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Neanderthals Were Cannibals

30 September 1999 7:00 pm
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Neanderthals were skilled hunters, working together to fell deer, goats, and perhaps even woolly rhinos with wooden spears. After the kill, they expertly butchered the carcasses, slicing meat and tendons from bone with stone tools and bashing open long bones to get at the fatty marrow inside. Now anthropologists report in Science that Neanderthals living 100,000 years ago performed precisely the same kinds of butchery on some of their own kind.

Marks on the bones clearly reveal that these early humans filleted the chewing muscles from the heads of two young Neanderthals, sliced out the tongue of at least one, and smashed the leg bone of a large adult to get at the marrow. The bone fragments were apparently then dumped amid the remains of deer and other butchered mammals. "Human and mammal remains were treated very similarly," says first author Alban Defleur of the Université du Mediterrané at Marseilles. "We can safely infer that both species were exploited for a culinary goal."

Defleur began to zero in on cannibalism after he saw cut marks on human bones from a test pit sunk into a cave at Moula-Guercy, France, a site that had previously yielded stone tools characteristic of the Neanderthals' Mousterian culture. He teamed up with paleoanthropologist Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, to rigorously compare the pattern of marks on the human bones with those on bones from red deer, presumably hunted for meat, at the same site.

The bones--78 pieces identified as belonging to at least six humans and almost 400 fragments attributed to other mammals--were scattered over 20 square meters. All the braincases and long bones of both deer and humans were smashed open, presumably to allow brains and marrow to be extracted. The bones bear few signs of burning or roasting, says White, suggesting that even though the Neanderthals had fire, they ate this flesh raw or hacked it off the bone before cooking.

Still, White says, "we are not claiming that all Neanderthals were cannibals, rather, that there were some cannibals among the Neanderthals." Indeed, sometimes Neanderthals buried their dead, arranging bodies in a fetal position in semicircular graves. Far from implying that Neanderthals were brutes, anthropologist Fred H. Smith of Northern Illinois University in De Kalb, and others say that the finding may indicate sophistication of a sort. "When you see some Neanderthals practicing intentional burial and others practicing cannibalism," he says, "that is a clear indication of behavior that is multidimensional--a pattern that mirrors the behavior of more modern people."

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