Stone Age Cutups: Deathly rituals emerge at Neandertal site

After excavating a cache of Neandertal fossils about 100 years ago at Krapina Cave in what’s now Croatia, researchers concluded that incisions on the ancient individuals’ bones showed that they had been butchered and presumably eaten by their comrades. That claim has proved difficult to confirm. A new, high-tech analysis indicates that the Krapina Neandertals ritually dismembered corpses in ways that must have held symbolic meaning for the group—whether or not Neandertals ate those remains.

GROOVY GAL. In a new study, a partial skull from Croatia’s Krapina Cave revealed a sequence of stone-tool incisions, one of which is clearly visible (arrow) atop the head. Inset shows view from above.* Wolpoff

Neandertals apparently possessed a facility for abstract thought that has often been regarded as unique to modern Homo sapiens, says study director Jill Cook of the British Museum in London. The Krapina Neandertals lived around 130,000 years ago.

“Some kind of mortuary practice that had symbolic significance was going on at Krapina,” Cook suggests. Although cannibalism might also have occurred, the bodies were systematically sliced up rather than quickly butchered, in her view. “Even eating people is a complex behavior” that likely would have included ritual of some kind, the British anthropologist notes.

Cook described the new investigation last week in Milwaukee at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society.

She and her colleagues used digital-imaging microscopy to generate high-resolution views of stone-tool incisions on Krapina remains. Many of the more than 800 fossils, which represent nearly 80 individuals, contain such markings. The researchers digitally lifted and separated images of incisions on individual bones for closer examination.

A partial skull known as Krapina 3 provided the biggest jolt. To the researchers’ surprise, it contains a pattern of regularly spaced, parallel grooves across the top of the head. “Someone sat with this skull in their lap and produced this extraordinary pattern with a stone tool,” Cook says.

Krapina 3 and other skull remains exhibit marks made by slicing away the ears, removing the tongue, detaching the lower jaw, and skinning the head. Lower-body fossils contain incisions created by removing muscle from bones as well as abrasions caused by scrubbing fat and gristle off bones. Cuts on pelvic and leg bones indicate that bodies lay facedown during dismemberment.

Researchers who have worked at the Krapina Cave greeted the new findings with caution. “We can’t rule out some type of ritual activity at Krapina, or even cannibalism,” says Fred Smith of Loyola University in Chicago. “But we can’t tell for sure why these bones were processed.” Many limb bones at the site were smashed open, perhaps to extract protein-rich marrow, Smith notes.

Even with digital technology, it’s difficult to pinpoint incisions on the Krapina fossils, adds Milford Wolpoff of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. A shellac coating applied to the bones as a preservative shortly after their discovery obscures many surface features on the bones, he asserts.

Of stone-tool marks that can be seen with digital microscopy, many resemble those on butchered-animal remains at later Stone Age sites, says Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder. In her view, that raises the possibility that cannibalism, devoid of ritual, occurred at Krapina.

Studies comparing the Krapina bones with those of prehistoric game animals are under way, Cook says.

*Errors in the image and caption have been corrected online.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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