November 10, 1999
by Angela M.H. Schuster
Illustration by Ray Bartkus
Broken and cut human bones found scattered about three hearths in Moula-Guercy, a cave overlooking the Rhône River in the Ardèche region of southeastern France, have confirmed that Neandertals practiced cannibalism 100,000 years ago. The 78 bone fragments, which have been dated at between 80,000 and 120,000 years ago, appear to have come from at least six individuals--two adults, two teenagers about 16 or 17 years old, and two children aged six or seven.
According to Tim D. White of the University of California at Berkeley, who has studied the bones, and French archaeologist Alban Defleur of the University of the Mediterranean, Marseilles, who has excavated the site since 1991, cut marks on the bones could have been made only by sharp flints. The skulls had been smashed open and limb bones had been broken apart, presumably to extract nutritious brain tissue and remove marrow. Only the hand and foot bones, which contain no marrow, remained intact. Cut marks indicate that tendons had been severed (necessary for limb removal), the thigh muscles removed, and in at least one case a tongue taken out.
No signs of gnawing were found on the bones, ruling out the possibility that the Neanderthals were eaten by wild animals. There were no signs of charring either, suggesting the flesh was either eaten raw or cooked off the bone. Scattered among the human remains were fragments of several animals butchered in the same manner, which were identified by Defleur's associate, Patria Valensi, as coming mostly from red deer.
"If we conclude that the animal remains are the leftovers from a meal, we're obliged to expand that conclusion to include humans," says Defleur. "It is not clear whether the individuals were eaten for survival when other food was scarce or as part of a social ritual," he adds, "but the abundance of natural resources available at the site when these individuals were killed makes the survival scenario seem highly unlikely."
Scientists have speculated for nearly a century that the Neanderthals practiced cannibalism. A cave in Croatia recently yielded a complete skeleton that had been stripped of all its flesh--to eat it before ritual burial of the bones some researchers have suggested. At Moula-Guercy, however, Defleur and White have found no evidence that would suggest the bones were cut and broken as part of a burial ritual.
"What is interesting is that while the Neandertal inhabitants at Moula-Guercy practiced cannibalism, their counterparts in the Middle East, most notably at Shanidar Cave in Iran and at Amud in Israel, were carefully placing their dead in burial pits along with tools and animal bone talismans. When you see some Neanderthals practising intentional burial and others practising cannibalism," says White, "is a clear indication of behavior that is multidimensional--a pattern that mirrors the behavior of more modern people."
Defleur and White reported their findings in the October 1, 1999, edition of the journal Science.
The recent redating of a Neandertal jaw and a cranial fragment--found in a cave at Vindija, Croatia, in the 1970s and 1980s--to ca. 28,500 years ago makes them the youngest Neandertal fossils ever found in Central Europe, according to anthropologist Fred H. Smith of Northern Illinois University and his colleagues, who published their findings in the October 21, 1999, edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Paul Pettitt and colleagues at Oxford University determined that the two bones are between 28,000 and 29,000 years old using accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating. The specimens had earlier been dated at 45,000 years using a gamma ray counter.
"Until this discovery," says Smith, "paleoanthropologists believed that the species had vanished from Central Europe shortly after the arrival of the first Homo sapiens in the area ca. 34,000 years ago. "Into that picture come these Croatian dates which show there were Neandertals living in the hills of Croatia 3,000 years after early modern humans were established in Germany [ca. 32,000 years ago], just a couple hundred kilometers away," says co-author Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis. "The new radiocarbon dates suggest Neandertals coexisted with early modern humans in Central Europe for several millennia, rather than having been immediately displaced as previously thought."
Equally young Neandertal finds, such as those from Zafarraya Cave, near Malaga in southern Spain, (see "The Last Neandertals," September/October 1995) have been recovered on the Iberian Peninsula, thought to be the last Neandertal holdout. An even greater population overlap has been documented in the Levant where Neandertal remains have been dated as late as to 60,000-50,000 years ago and human remains as old as 120,000-90,000 years ago, suggesting the two species may have been neighbors for 30,000 to 40,000 years.
Smith and Trinkaus have also suggested that Neandertals may have not only lived alongside and even interbred with members of our species. Smith says the Vindija remains show a mix of Neanderthal and modern human features, including incipient brows and reduced chins, indicating possible genetic exchange between the two species. The April 1999 announcement of the discovery of a 24,500-year-old Portuguese fossil, another possible Neanderthal-modern human hybrid (see "Hybrid Humans?," July/August 1999), the authors contend, bolsters their case for interbreeding.
F. Clarke Howell of the University of California at Berkeley said the new dates found by Smith and Trinkaus "are not surprising" and do prove that Neandertals and modern humans may have lived in Central Europe at about the same time. However, the characteristics in the skeletons that Trinkaus and Smith attribute to Neandertal are within the ranges of normal variation for humans. "You could argue," says Howell, "that they lived apart in the same area and threw rocks at each other instead of genes." DNA analysis may one day resolve these issues.
An X-ray analysis of the famous 130,000-year-old Neandertal bones discovered a century ago in Krapina, Croatia, has revealed that our ancient cousins were far healthier that previously thought. Undertaken by physical anthropologist Alan Mann and a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the study of 884 bone fragments belonging to some 75 individuals showed that the Neandertal population was "osteologically healthy" aside from suffering from normal biomechanical wear due to day-to-day activities such as food-getting, aging, and injury. "We were able to document one of the earliest benign bone tumors ever found--on a rib; one individual may have had a surgical amuputation of a hand; and several individuals suffered from osteoarthritis, which may have made them a little stiff in the morning."
According to Mann, the X rays corrected some errors in the original descriptions of the Krapina assemblage. Nine specimens turned out to be animal bones not human, while 37 bone fragments, initially thought to be animal were identified as hominid.
© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America