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Bone Fragments Link Neanderthals With Cannibalism

French and American Archaeologists Find Definitive Evidence That Neanderthals Ate Other Neanderthals

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
Posted October 6, 1999

From the platform above the original cave entrance, vertical strings indicate the spatial grid used to control the positions of Neanderthal bone fragments found at the level of the excavators. David DeGusta photo

A team of French and American archaeologists has found clear evidence of cannibalism at a 100,000-year-old Neanderthal cave site in southern France.

"This is conclusive evidence that at least some Neanderthals practiced cannibalism," said paleontologist Tim White, professor of integrative biology. White, director of the Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies, is one of five authors of a report on the cave site that appears in the Oct. 1 issue of the journal Science.

The ongoing excavation of Baume Moula-Guercy, a cave overlooking the Rhône river near Soyons north of Marseille, France, is led by Alban Defleur of the Laboratoire d'Anthropologie in Marseille. Defleur first excavated part of the cave floor in 1991 and reported in 1993 that some Neanderthal bones displayed cut marks suggestive of cannibalism.

Neanderthals, known for their heavy eyebrow ridge and short, stocky physique, are evolutionary cousins of modern humans, or Homo sapiens. Most anthropologists think Neanderthals were not our direct ancestors, but rather that they split off from the human tree more than 300,000 years ago and eventually died out about 30,000 years ago, perhaps assisted to extinction by modern humans.

Since the turn of the century, people have suggested that Neanderthal sites showed evidence of cannibalism, but no conclusive evidence had been found.

"At most sites the excavation techniques were not adequate to demonstrate to most people unequivocally that cannibalism had gone on," White said.

White had published in 1992 a book about cannibalism among the Anasazi Indians of the American Southwest, and had suggested tests that could definitively establish whether humans or human ancestors had butchered their own kind for food.

The most important test, he wrote, was whether hominid bones had been treated in the same way as animal bones -- that is, defleshed with stone tools and smashed to get at the nutritious marrow inside. If so, according to White, it could be strongly inferred that both the animals and the hominids were butchered for food.

Defleur invited White to look at the bone fragments uncovered at the French site. Since first excavating the cave floor, Defleur and his colleagues have found 78 fragments from at least six smashed Neanderthal skeletons, the pieces strewn about the floor of the cave along with animal bones and stone tools.

"Defleur is treating the site like a crime scene," White said. "He has secured the area and goes in each season to excavate, meticulously using bamboo tools. Metal ones can leave marks on the fossils."

The effort has paid off. Because Defleur kept every sliver of bone, White was able to identify several enigmatic bones as Neanderthal. Several previously unidentified fragments turned out to be parts of a single Neanderthal femur (leg bone) that had cut marks where stone tools had been used to deflesh the bone. It also had hammer marks from a stone hammer, fracture marks typical of bones smashed with a stone tool, and striations from the anvil against which the bone was held.

"We have every sliver of bone, so we can refit fragments to understand how the butchery was done -- how the tissue was removed from the bone and how the marrow was acquired," White said. "These are truly unique traces."

Patricia Valensi of the Laboratoire de Préhistoire du Lazaret in Nice, France, performed a similar analysis of the animal bones, primarily red deer. They showed processing identical to that seen with the Neanderthal bones.

"We interpret these data to indicate that the hominid and deer carcasses were butchered in a similar way, with the objective being the removal of soft tissues and marrow," the authors wrote in Science. "An inference of cannibalism is therefore warranted for Moula-Guercy…"

Since the only hominids in Europe at the time were Neanderthals, White said, they must have been the ones doing the butchering.

More difficult to answer is the question, "Why?" Other clear cases of cannibalism -- among the Aztecs of Central America and the Anasazi of the American Southwest, as well as isolated historical instances, such as the Andean soccer team plane crash and California's Donner Party -- were due to a variety of reasons. Among them, White said, were social pathology, survival in extreme situations, and conditions under which cannibalism had become a central part of the religion.

"We can only answer this 'Why?' question after we excavate many such Neanderthal sites and study how they are distributed across space and through time," he said. "Clearly, judging from what we already have, as more sites are excavated in a tightly controlled fashion, we will find more evidence of cannibalism."



October 6 - 12, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 9)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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