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April 20, 2015

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Some Neanderthals chopped up their dead—reasons unknown, study says

April 20, 2015
Courtesy of SINC Scientific Information Service
and World Science staff

Some Ne­an­der­thal peo­ple liv­ing in Eu­rope cut, beat and broke the bones of their re­cently de­ceased com­pan­ions, for rea­sons un­known, re­search­ers say.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors are con­sid­er­ing can­ni­bal­ism and some sort of rit­u­al as pos­si­ble ex­plana­t­ions, but note that the people don’t seem to have lacked for food at at least one site studied in con­nec­tion with the prac­tice. Cer­e­mo­ny is con­ceiv­a­ble; even to­day, Ti­betans prac­tice “sky buri­als,” in which the dead are cut up and fed to vul­tures.

Cut marks on the fe­mur of a Nean­der­thal child. (Cour­tesy of M.D. Gar­ralda et al)


Re­search­ers re­ported the new find­ings from the French re­gion of Poi­tou-Cha­rentes, in par­tic­u­lar fos­sil re­mains of two adults and a child at a site known as Mar­il­lac. 

Si­m­i­lar “ma­nipula­t­ions” have been ob­served at oth­er Ne­an­der­thal sites, the sci­en­tists said.

The stu­dy, pub­lished in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Phys­i­cal An­thro­po­l­ogy, an­a­lyzed bone frag­ments from three Ne­an­der­thal peo­ple found be­tween 1967 and 1980 at the French site, dat­ing back some 57,600 years. 

These are an in­com­plete di­aph­y­sis (mid­dle part of long bones) of a right ra­di­us, from the arm; anoth­er of a left fib­u­la, or calf bone; and the ma­jor­ity of a right fe­mur, or thigh bone. The lat­ter be­longed to a child es­ti­mat­ed as age nine or 10.

The fe­mur piece shows two large cut marks half a cen­ti­me­ter (a fifth of an inch) apart, the study said. From its sta­te of pre­serva­t­ion, the re­search­ers sug­gest the bone was bro­ken to sep­a­ra­te the up­per and low­er ex­treme of the fe­mur, where the joints are. 

“The right leg re­ceived a se­ries of blows that frac­tured the fe­mur, and the cut marks iden­ti­fied are an­thropic [hu­man-made] in na­ture; in oth­er words, there is no vis­i­ble ev­i­dence of an­i­mal bites,” said María Do­lo­res Gar­ralda, pro­fes­sor at the Com­plutense Uni­vers­ity of Ma­drid, a re­search­er at the Uni­vers­ity of Bor­deaux in France and the stu­dy’s main au­thor.

The bones of the two adults show these and oth­er mark­ings, the sci­en­tists added.

Ev­i­dent­ly, Gar­ralda said, “some Ne­an­der­thal groups cut and tore apart child or adult corpses shortly af­ter death.” 

“We have been able to dem­on­stra­te these ma­nipula­t­ions at sev­er­al Ne­an­der­thal sites in Eu­rope,” she added. “But we have not been able to dem­on­stra­te” that Ne­an­der­thals ev­er ate hu­man meat.

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Some Neanderthal people living in Europe cut, beat and broke the bones of their recently deceased companions, for reasons unknown, researchers say. Investigators are considering cannibalism and some sort of ritual as possible explanations, but note that the Neanderthals at at least one closely-studied site don’t seem to have lacked for food. Ceremony is conceivable; even today, Tibetans practice “sky burials,” in which the dead are cut up and fed to vultures. Researchers reported the new findings from the French region of Poitou-Charentes, in particular fossil remains of two adults and a child at a site known as Marillac. Similar “manipulations” have been observed at other Neanderthal sites, the scientists said. The study, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, analyzed bone fragments from three Neanderthal people found between 1967 and 1980 at the French site dating back some 57,600 years. These are an incomplete diaphysis (middle part of long bones) of a right radius, from the arm; another of a left fibula, or calf bone; and the majority of a right femur, or thigh bone. The latter belonged to a child estimated as age nine or 10. The femur piece shows two large cut marks half a centimeter (a fifth of an inch) apart, the study said. From its state of preservation, the researchers suggest the bone was broken to separate the upper and lower extreme of the femur, where the joints are. “The right leg received a series of blows that fractured the femur, and the cut marks identified are anthropic [human-made] in nature; in other words, there is no visible evidence of animal bites,” said María Dolores Garralda, professor at the Complutense University of Madrid, a researcher at the University of Bordeaux in France and the study’s main author. The bones of the two adults show these and other markings, the scientists added. Evidently, Garralda said, “some Neanderthal groups cut and tore apart child or adult corpses shortly after death.” “We have been able to demonstrate these manipulations at several Neanderthal sites in Europe,” she added. “But we have not been able to demonstrate” that Neanderthals ever ate human meat.