Cannibalism is of one those topics that automatically gets a lot of eyeballs and clicks on the Internet. I’m sure there are a lot of psychological and sociological hypotheses to explain this but that’s not why I’m bringing up the subject. I want to talk about cannibalism and archaeology, because the latter (not the former!) is one of my favourite subjects.
The topic of eating one’s own kind came up in the published results of studies of the Goyet caves, not too far from me here in Belgium. These results were published in Scientific Reports (part of Nature Publishing Group) by an international and multidisciplinary team. They analyzed Neanderthal bones dating from 40,000 years ago, and found that there is very strong evidence for “butchery activities” and “bones having been used for retouching stone tools.” In short, Neanderthals ate other Neanderthals, and even used the remaining bones to fix up their tools.
The evidence seems very strong. They identified that it was indeed Neanderthals eating one another, using DNA and by demonstrating that there’s no evidence of Homo sapiens in that area in that timeframe. They also showed that cut marks were clearly identified; possible bite marks were found, but this conclusion is less certain. The bite marks indicate human consumption and not a ritual practice of cleaning bones from the flesh of deceased persons, which has also been observed in other cases. The marks are the same as evidenced on animal bones from the same site. (By the way, you just have to check out the imaging dome they used for their analysis!)
The use of bones for retouching stone tools is also evidenced by the “freshness” of the bones (at that time!), making it clear that those Neanderthals knew these were human bones they were using. That doesn’t exclude a ritual practice, as the researchers also noted, but it also matches with the same usage patterns on animal bones.
According to the researchers, this is a very important finding, as it is the first clear evidence for such behavior in Neanderthals. To me, it’s also important as it shows that Neanderthals were as murderous as Homo sapiens. Since we’re closely related (including traces of interbreeding) that should come as no surprise, but it’s good that science shows what my cynical mind already suspected.
The results are also interesting because they touch on a point a made in my previous article about diets: going back to the “original” with a paleo-diet is perhaps not really what one wants…
One final word about how this news was reported: I first encountered this in one of my alerts in an article from the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia). Of course it was to be expected that a reference to cannibalism was in the title: “Belgian Neanderthals ‘ate each other’ and made tools from human bones.” But what irritated me is that the title made reference to “Belgian Neanderthals.” Just to put this in perspective, Belgium isn’t even 200 years old, but the dig site is from at least 40,000 years ago. Even allowing for references by Julius Caesar, 2,000 years ago, to a Belgian tribe, that’s still an anachronistic reference 20 times wrong. The science reporting itself is interesting and well done, and merely referring cannibalistic Neanderthals would have been just fine (in a sense). Instead, an overzealous title editor managed to divert attention from science, just in order to get eyeballs and clicks.