revive Neandertal cannibalism
By B. Bower
The butchered skeletal remains of six individuals, unearthed at a 100,000-to-120,000-year-old cave site in southeastern France, offer compelling evidence of Neandertal cannibalism, according to a new report.
Neandertal and animal bones found in Moula-Guercy Cave, which overlooks the Rhone River, exhibit identical signs of meat and marrow removal, says a team headed by anthropologist Alban Defleur of the CNRS Anthropology Laboratory in Marseille, France.
Neandertals were the only members of the human evolutionary family known to have inhabited southwestern Europe at the time. Defleur and his coworkers thus propose that Neandertals killed and ate their own at Moula-Guercy—for as yet undetermined reasons.
"This is conclusive evidence that at least some Neandertals practiced cannibalism," holds anthropologist Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, a member of Defleur's group. "Moula-Guercy was a temporary occupation, and we can't say what the reasons were for cannibalism occurring there."
Reports of prehistoric cannibalism go back more than a century. Researchers have identified butchery marks on human bones at a 6,000-year-old French cave and at U.S. Southwest Anasazi Indian sites that are 800 to 1,600 years old (SN: 1/2/93, p. 12).
Controversy still surrounds claims that ancient groups pursued anything other than starvation-induced cannibalism in emergencies.
Defleur began excavating Moula-Guercy in 1991. After finding Neandertal bones with stone-tool incisions suggestive of cannibalism, he invited White to help analyze the remains.
Their report, published in the Oct. 1 Science, focuses on 78 pieces of bone from at least six smashed Neandertal skeletons found among animal bones and stone tools. The Neandertal remains come from two adults, two adolescents, and two children.
The braincases had been broken into fragments and the limb bones shattered. The tongue of one child had been cut out. Microscopic scrutiny of incisions on the bones indicates that the skeletons were cut apart to obtain meat, the researchers contend.
A reassembled leg bone also displayed dents made by a stone hammer, fracture marks produced when the bone was smashed, and striations from a stone anvil against which it was held. Bones of red deer and other animals that lay among the Neandertal remains showed the same types of marks.
Neandertals often faced food shortages in the ice age environments of western Europe, suggesting that they turned to cannibalism at Moula-Guercy and elsewhere to stave off starvation, remarks anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis.
White suspects that cannibalism had deeper meaning for Neandertals and other prehistoric groups. He plans to compare evidence at Moula-Guercy with that from other ancient cannibalism sites—including a cave containing 800,000-year-old butchered Homo bones, which Spanish scientists will soon describe in a scientific journal.
From Science News, Vol. 156, No. 14, October 2, 1999, p. 213. Copyright © 1999, Science Service.