Neanderthals have a bit of a bad reputation. This is unfair, as it turns out they were a smart, sophisticated species. But don’t let that fool you. They weren’t exactly noble savages either. In fact, cannibal Neanderthals were very common.
Why did they eat each other? Perhaps food was hard to come by in their ice age environment, forcing them to resort to cannibalism. Or maybe this was a cultural practice. Could eating the dead be a sign of respect?
Given how little culture fossilises, it’s unlikely we’ll ever know the answer. However, a new discovery suggests cannibal Neanderthals were more pragmatic than cultural. It turns out a group fo Belgian Neanderthals were using their dead not only as food but as tools too.
The Neanderthals we’re talking about today come from Belgium. Specifically, the Trosieme Caverne (or “third cave”) of a long-studied system at Goyet. Researchers have been poking about in this cave since the 1860s. During this time nearly 100 Neanderthal fossils had been found, representing at least 60 individuals. Radiocarbon dating indicates they were living in the cave 40 – 45 thousand years ago. For context, that’s around the same time as modern humans began to arrive in Europe as well.
These Neanderthals have had a battery of tests performed on them over the years. These include an mtDNA analysis, which shows them to fit quite neatly into the middle of the Neanderthal group. But what we’re interested in is the results of just looking at the bones. In particular, the fact that nearly 1/3 of all the fossils found show signs of cut marks.
This is the telltale damage done to bones by stone tools as the meat is sliced off for consumption, confirming that cannibalism was common in this population. Cannibal Neanderthals might be even more common than these numbers suggest, as all of these bones are fragments. Much of the evidence may thus have been destroyed.
Of course, cannibal Neanderthals are hardly a new discovery. Similar evidence has been found at sites across Europe. At Krapina, Croatia, for example, 100 Neanderthals representing at least 14 Neanderthals were found to have been cannibalised. And it wasn’t limited to Neanderthals either, with many human sites documenting evidence we partook in our own flesh too.
DIY cannibal Neanderthals
Things start getting more interesting when you work animals into the mix. More than 30,000 fossil animals were found in the Goyet Cave system. Like the Neanderthals, they appear to have been eaten too. And accordingly, there are many similarities between the two datasets. Both show butchery marks and both show signs of being selectively curated (i.e. meat poor parts, like feet, were just thrown away).
There was one other, more unexpected similarity. Neanderthals would often use bones to help make their tools. The classic stone tool is made by hitting one rock (a core) with another (a hammer), breaking off pieces and/or shaping the core until it looks like what you want. However, you could use bone or antler as the hammer (given the paradoxical label “soft hammer”). As well as often being easier to come by, the more elastic nature of these organics changes the results slightly. The resulting fragments can be longer and thinner than their hard hammer counterparts. Which you might want, or you might not. I won’t knap shame.
Anyhoo, many Neanderthal sites show signs of the animals they consumed being recycled into soft hammers. The bones would be used to help touch up existing tools, or even manufacture new ones. The same was true for the Goyet system, with the legs of many of the animals showing signs of being used in tool production. Legs were preferred because their density made them good hammers.
But the interesting thing is this also translated to the Neanderthal bones too. The 3 out of 4 preserved adult legs signs of being used to help sharpen stone tools. The same sort of damage seen in the animal remains.
The Neanderthals at Trosieme Caverne used animals as food and tools. This left behind telltale evidence in both damage to the tools and which parts of the animals remain. These same patterns were seen on the Neanderthal remains at the site (with the exception that they seem to have kept more Neanderthal skulls). Like the animals, they were also eaten (and meat poor parts discarded) and used to help sharpen tools.
The similarity in treatment between these two sites suggests that, at least here, the Neanderthals weren’t being given any special treatment. This is a fairly strong point against the idea Neanderthal cannibalism was part of some sort of ritual or cultural practice. At least one set of Neanderthals, it seems, were just assholes about the whole thing.
Driscoll, K. and García-Rojas, M., 2014. Their lips are sealed: identifying hard stone, soft stone, and antler hammer direct percussion in Palaeolithic prismatic blade production. Journal of Archaeological Science, 47, pp.134-141.
Rougier, H., Crevecoeur, I., Beauval, C., Posth, C., Flas, D., Wißing, C., Furtwängler, A., Germonpré, M., Gómez-Olivencia, A., Semal, P. and van der Plicht, J., 2016. Neandertal cannibalism and Neandertal bones used as tools in Northern Europe. Scientific reports, 6, p.29005.