French and American archaeologists find definitive evidence that Neanderthals ate other Neanderthals some 100,000 years ago

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- 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 at the University of California, Berkeley. White, director of UC Berkeley's 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. (Click here for photos.)

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.

He points to two Neanderthal sites - Krapina and Vindija - in Croatia that are widely thought to contain evidence of cannibalism. Excavations at the turn of the century, however, obliterated much evidence that could have confirmed it.

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 not only had cut marks where stone tools had been used to deflesh the bone, but also 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."

The Neanderthal bones represent at least six individuals. Two were adults of uncertain age, two were immature 15- or 16-year-olds, and two were children, six to seven years old. The skeletons had been cut apart and the skull vaults broken into fragments. The long bones were shattered, with only hand and foot bones intact. The tongue of one of the children had been cut out.

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."

Through UC Berkeley's Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies, White has encouraged student interaction with Defleur's group in France. Five undergraduate students dug this past summer at the Baume Moula-Guercy, and Defleur has participated in White's long-time excavations in Ethiopia in search of early human ancestors. Defleur also has lectured in White's undergraduate course on the evolution of human behavior.

"These are unique opportunities for undergraduates," White said. "One of the strengths of our lab is its broad range of international colleagues, and this benefits students as well as faculty."

Other authors of the Science paper are Ludovic Slimak of the Université de Provence in Aix-en-Provence, France; and Évelyne Crégut-Bonnoure of the Museé Requien, Avignon, France.


This server has been established by the University of California at Berkeley Public Information Office. Copyright for all items on this server held by The Regents of the University of California. Thanks for your interest in UC Berkeley.
More Press Releases | More Campus News and Events | UC Berkeley Home Page


Send comments to: