Ancient Neanderthals were cannibals, study finds

New research indicates Neanderthals living in Europe just north of the Alps had a very unique food source: other Neanderthals.

Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the new research is based on the analysis of Neanderthal bones found in Belgium that were dated to between 40, 000 and 46,000 years old. The study described the first known evidence of cannibalism in this ancient human species.

Cannibalism from Ancient Neanderthals

The study team conducted a comprehensive evaluation of the mitochondrial DNA of ten Neanderthals, which doubled the existing genetic information on a species of humans that became extinct around 30,000 years ago. The genetic data validated earlier studies, which indicated fairly little genetic diversity in late European Neanderthals. In other words, these populations were intently related to one a different.

The cavern where the study specimens were found was excavated almost 150 years ago, but today, scientists are capable of extracting vast quantities of data using processes like making exact digital measurements, assessing the conditions that preserved bone fragments, isotopic analysis and genetic investigation.

Neanderthal bones

Bones of five different individuals used in the study.

According to the study, a few Neanderthal remains from the archeological site have been worked on, as denoted by cut marks and notches. The scientists understand this as an indication the bodies from which they came had been butchered. The butchering appeared to be thorough, the remains revealed skinning, cleaning and extraction of bone marrow.

“These indications allow us to assume that Neanderthals practiced cannibalism,” Hervé Bocherens, a professor of biogeology at the University of Tübingen, said in a news release.

The study researchers said they were unable to determine if the remains were symbolically butchered, or butchered for food.

“The many remains of horses and reindeer found in Goyet were processed the same way,” Bocherens added.

The study noted that four bones from the location revealed Neanderthals used their dead relatives’ bones as tools, with one thigh bone and three shinbones used to shape tools. Animal bones were regularly employed as knapping tools.

“That Neanderthal bones were used for this purpose – that’s something we had seen at very few sites, and nowhere as frequently as in (the study location),” Bocherens said


Image credit: Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences