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The Sciences

Neanderthals Likely Turned to Cannibalism, Dining on Their Companions

Since the 1800s, experts have clashed over whether our Stone Age cousins consumed their own kind for ritual purposes, or just for calories.

By Cody CottierApr 12, 2024 8:00 AM
Neanderthal skull
(Credit: Halamka/Getty Images)


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At this point, there’s little doubt Neanderthals ate each other, even if the practice doesn't appear to have been widespread. Bones found in Belgium, France, Spain, and Croatia bear the clear signature of cannibalism — riddled with butchery marks and cracked open for marrow extraction, these remains were found strewn about with apparent disregard for proper funerals. But a deeper and more controversial question remains: Why?

As French archaeologists Alban Defleur and Emmanuel Desclaux wrote in the Journal of Archeological Science in 2016, “The quest to understand the causes of Paleolithic cannibalism is almost as old as prehistory itself.” After more than 150 years, experts still clash over whether these practices were nutritional or cultural, a source of caloric nourishment or of ritual significance.

Either way, the answer would have big implications for how we understand the shared hominin lineage that binds us to Neanderthals.

Rethinking Neanderthal Lifestyle

Almost immediately after their discovery in the mid 19th century, Neanderthals became the embodiment of primitive savagery. Our Stone Age cousins (quite literally, given that ancient humans interbred with them) took up residence in the public imagination as uncouth cavemen.

In recent decades, however, that caricature has eroded under a steady flow of archaeological finds that suggest Neanderthals were much more than club-happy brutes. They nursed one another in old age, buried their dead, and wore animal teeth and bird feathers for personal ornament. In these and many other ways, they were strikingly like us.

Notably, some of the cannibalistic episodes involving Neanderthals date to tens of thousands of years before those traits became widespread. Still, it feels difficult to square the grisly reality with what we know of their more sophisticated side.

"It’s hard to imagine that Neanderthals, who are so human-like and capable of symbolic behavior," says Michael Pante, a paleoanthropologist at Colorado State University, “would consume individuals of their own species in a manner that didn’t distinguish between themselves and fauna.”

Read More: The Fascinating World of Neanderthal Diet, Language, and Other Behaviors

Why Did Neanderthals Become Cannibals?

Survival is perhaps the most obvious explanation. As paleoanthropologist Tim D. White wrote in Scientific American in 2003, “People usually eat because they are hungry, and most prehistoric cannibals were therefore probably hungry.”

If Neanderthals dined on their companions to avoid starvation, they’d be in good company. The grim tales of the infamous Donner Party and Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 — in which the surviving passengers of the 1972 plane crash were only able to survive by eating the bodies of those who did not — demonstrate that even humans will do the same when our lives depend on it.

In their 2016 paper, Defleur and Desclaux argued that during the last interglacial period, a group of Neanderthals likely found themselves in just such a predicament. Based on their analysis of Baume Moula-Guercy — a cave in southern France where the remains of six cannibalized Neanderthals were found — the researchers claim that roughly 100,000 years ago, the European climate underwent drastic change, with morbid consequences.

Amid this environmental upheaval, most Neanderthals were forced to migrate. The few that stayed behind, facing a decline of large prey animals, were left with few options. In their most dire moments they consumed each other, as revealed by the marks carved into their skeletons.

Read More: The Dyatlov Pass Incident: Can Science Explain What Happened to the Hikers?

Evidence of Cannabilism in Neanderthals

Still, other archaeologists remain unconvinced. Ludovic Slimak and Christopher Nicholson, in a response to Defleur and Desclaux’s study, argue that the mere presence of cut marks doesn’t imply a Donner-esque survival scenario. In fact, they don’t even see the marks as a bulletproof case for any kind of cannibalism.

“The dismemberment of Neanderthal corpses,” Slimak and Nicholson write, “may be the result of more complex cultural rites that archaeologists have yet to understand.”

In these debates, a lot hinges on how one interprets the damage done to bones. Some researchers argue that if the butchery resembles what we see on the remains of animals that Neanderthals ate, it’s evidence for nutritional cannibalism; if it doesn’t, that suggests Neanderthals deliberately marked the remains of their peers, perhaps in some kind of funerary ritual.

Pante hopes to bring more scientific rigor to these analyses. Using an instrument called a profilometer, in a 2017 study, he proposed a new method that captures high-resolution measurements of cut marks, then hands that data over to an algorithm trained on modern-day bones whose source of damage is known.

With this method, Pante can differentiate between marks left by teeth (human or animal), by tools, even by hooves. Experts have made such judgment calls with the naked eye and other tools for years, but Pante believes his approach could add a higher level of quantitative precision to the conversation, and potentially shed light on some age-old mysteries.

But even then, he acknowledges there would still be a gap that’s challenging to bridge, if not unbridgeable. Take Krapina, a site in Croatia with the largest collection of Neanderthal remains found to date. When Pante examined the collection, along with his CSU colleagues Mica Glantz and Connie Fellman, they came to several conclusions: The people there had indeed eaten their own kind, then left the scraps scattered on the ground for scavengers.

“That’s a story we can put together,” he says. “Whether that was part of some ritual, I can’t say.”

Read More: Why Cannibalism Is A Common Behavior For Some Animals

Are Neanderthals Just Like Us?

The overarching problem is that it’s no small task to determine a 100,000-year-old Neanderthal’s intentions. Discussing the Goyet Caves in Belgium in an article in Scientific Reports, California State University archaeologist Hélène Rougier and her colleagues write that available data makes it impossible to tell whether the cut marks on Neanderthal bones came from ritual practices, or simply from processing an immediately available food source.

That's because, in most cases, the evidence is woefully sparse. What's more, given the bewildering diversity in how humans send off their dead, ritual burials that seem crude by today's standards could have been part of a reverential ceremony. Across Asia, for example, many cultures practice excarnation, the removal of flesh and organs before interment. In the famous “sky burials” of Tibet, the body is cut into pieces and left on a mountaintop for vultures to devour.

On the flip side, what looks like symbolic behavior may actually have been careless butchery. One skull from Croatia, dubbed Krapina 3, has a series of 35 parallel scored lines that seem unlike other scalping and defleshing marks at the site. Some researchers have taken them as a sign of ritual, but it’s difficult to be sure. Pante, after comparing them with other specimens, suspects those marks might not be so unusual after all.

In short, the truth eludes us. But maybe there’s enough truth to go around, and thinking of Neanderthal cannibalism as a rigid binary between ritual and survival is too narrow. If our evolutionary kin really were more like us than we realize, it wouldn’t be so surprising to find that their cannibalism took many forms, differing across time and space.

“There doesn't have to be just one way they were doing it,” Pante says. “It’s probably variable, just like [in] humans.”

Read More: Neanderthals Also Had Superior Toolmaking Abilities, Not Just Humans

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