Washington DC - The best evidence yet that some members of a now-extinct species of human, the Neanderthals, practiced cannibalism has emerged at a cave site in France's Ardèche region. A team of French and U.S. archeologists has discovered a set of bones that points to a grisly scenario in which some Neanderthals were butchered, eaten, and disposed of similarly to local game. The team reports their find in the 1 October issue of Science.
These bones should lay to rest a long-standing debate over whether some Neanderthals, who lived 35-125 thousand years ago, ate their fellow species members. Neanderthal bones from several other sites in Europe carry marks that some archeologists have interpreted as signs of butchery. However critics have countered that the marks may be caused by other types of activities, such as gnawing by carnivores, cleaning the bones in preparation for burial, or even from mishandling by modern-day researchers.
Now, the 100,000-120,000 year-old bones discovered at the cave site of Moula-Guercy near the west bank of the Rhone river portray a convincing picture in which a group of Neanderthals systematically defleshed the bones of at least six other individuals and then broke the bones apart with a hammerstone and anvil to remove the marrow and brains. "The work at the Moula-Guercy cave allows us for the first time to demonstrate the existence of the practice of cannibalism by European Neanderthals," said Alban Defleur, of Université de la Méditerranée at Marseilles and CNRS, who discovered and analyzed the bones together with Tim White, of the University of California at Berkeley, Patricia Valensi, of Laboratoire de Préhistoire du Lazaret, Ludovic Slimak, of CNRS and l'Université de Provence, and Évelyne Crégut-Bonnoure, of Museé Requien.
Whether these individuals were eaten for survival when other food was scarce or as part of a social ritual isn't yet clear, but the abundance of natural resources available at the site makes the survival scenario seem unlikely, according to Defleur. The archeologists have also found no evidence that the bones were cut and broken as part of a mortuary ritual. To the contrary, they found the Neanderthal bones intermingled with deer bones that were also scored with similar cut-marks and broken into pieces. Both types of bones appear to have been littered across the cave floor rather than buried.
These bones are therefore much different from the Neanderthal remains from the Croatian site of Krapina. These remains created quite a stir when archeologists excavated them in the 1890s and proposed that the find was evidence of cannibalism. However, doubts about this conclusion persisted because of the primitive techniques used to recover the bones. The newly-unearthed bones from Moula-Guercy remove any such doubts. The researchers carefully mapped the bones' positions in the ground and set the scene of the gruesome feast by taking detailed notes of the associated stone tools, animal remains, and even the sediment layers in which the bones were embedded.
The 78 Neanderthal bones at Moula Guercy come from at least six individuals: two adults, two 15 or 16 year-olds, and two six or seven year-olds. All the skulls and limb bones were broken apart; only the hand and foot bones remained intact. Cuts across the foot, ankle, and elbow joints show that in at least one individual each, the Achilles tendon, toe-flexor tendons, and the tendon of the biceps muscle were cut. In two of the younger individuals, the temporalis muscle (used to clench the jaw) was cut from the skull. Other cuts show that the thigh muscles were removed, and in at least one case the tongue was cut out.
The types of cuts and fractures on the directly associated deer bones indicate that the animals were butchered in the same way, a similarity that strongly suggests that the Neanderthals at Moula-Guercy practiced cannibalism. "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.
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