Saturday 23 July 2016

Evidence of cannibalism in a Neanderthal population from the Late Pleistocene of Belgium.

In the century and a half since the discovery of the first Neanderthal remains traces of the group have been found across much of Europe and Western Asia. During this time there has been a great deal of speculation about the cognitive abilities of Neanderthals, particularly since the discovery of examples of ritual behaviour otherwise known only in Modern Humans, such as burying their dead, making jewelry and even using cosmetics. One behavioural trait occasionally reported in Neanderthals, is cannibalism (eating members of their own species), interpreted as having taken place at sites where Neanderthals show signs of having been modified in ways that suggest butchery. However while this behaviour has been suggested for Neanderthals on several occasions, the evidence is very limited, comprising largely of isolated finds from different localities, making it difficult to interpret as a consistent and planned activity, and in many cases difficult to assert that the butchering was carried out by Neanderthals themselves, and not early Modern Humans.

In a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports on 6 July 2016, a team of scientists led by Hélène Rougier of the Department of Anthropology at California State University, Northridge describe a series of Neanderthal remains from the Late Pleistocene Goyet Cave System in Belgium.

The Goyet Cave System was first excavated in 1868, with further  excavations in the early twentieth century and 1990s. Archaeological material comes from a number of layers in the Troisième Caverne (Third Cave), which has produced artifacts assigned to the Mousterian (a culture considered to exclusively Neanderthal), the Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician (which may have been made by late Neanderthals or early Modern Humans), the Aurignacian, the Gravettian and the Magdalenian (Modern Human cultures from the Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene). Early excavations at the site were not carried out to modern standards, but it is thought that the Mousterian comes from several layers and indicates several separate periods of occupation.

As well as artifacts Goyet has yielded 283 bones and teeth identified as Human, including 96 bones and three teeth considered to be of Neanderthal origin, as well as a large volume of bones and teeth of non-Human origin. Rouger et al. carried out carbon dating on 10 of these Neanderthal specimens, yielding dates of 40-45 000 years before the present, relatively young by Neanderthal standards, but to old to be of Modern Human origin. A DNA analysis was also carried out of fifteen sets of the remains, the results of which suggests that the individuals were closely related to other late Pleistocene Neanderthals, including those from the Neander Valley in Germany, El Sidrón in Spain and Vindija in Croatia.

Neandertal remains from the Troisième caverne of Goyet (Belgium). * Designates the specimens that have been directly dated. Scale bar is 3 cm. Rouger et al. (2016).

All of the Neanderthal remains were highly fragmentary (no complete bones were present), with the majority coming from either long limb bones or the cranium. Of the 96 bone fragments, 47 could be refitted to other fragments, suggesting they represent a fairly low number of individuals. Roughly half of the Neanderthal bones showed signs of butchering with stone tools, including marks consistent with defleshing (cutting meat from the skeleton) and dismemberment (cutting the skeleton into smaller, more manageable pieces). Four of the bones, a femur and three tibias, show signs of having been used to retouch stone tools.

Retouching marks (b1,b2) and cutmarks (c1,c2) present on the Goyet Neandertal bones (example of femur III). (a) femur III in anterior view; (b1,c1) close-up photos; (b2,c2) images obtained using a minidome. Rouger et al. (2016).

Since these skeletons date from considerably before the occupation of northern Europe by Modern Humans, the possibility of butchery by Modern Humans can be discounted, providing clear evidence for the practise of cannibalism amongst a Late Pleistocene Neanderthal population in northern Europe for the first time. The bones appear to have been cut while the bodies were still fresh, suggesting that the people making the cuts would have known that they were dismembering other people rather than animals, but whether this was a ritualised activity, or an activity carried out for strictly pragmatic reasons cannot be asserted upon the available evidence.

Four other sites within 250 km of Goyet have yielded Neanderthal remains, none of which provide any evidence of funeral behaviour. Walou Cave and Trou de l’Abîme in Belgium have produced only loose teeth while Feldhofer in Germany has produced a series of Neanderthal remains associated with Keilmesser technologies; an older Neanderthal technology not found at Goyet, which suggests an age of over 70 000 years. Interestingly one of the Feldhofer skeletons has marks interpreted as cut marks, though this skeleton has the long bones of its limbs intact, suggesting that butchery was not the motive for these cuts. The final site, Spy in Belgium, has produced items of the Lincombian-Ranisian-Jerzmanowician technology, along with two adult skeletons. However the more intact of these shows signs of having been buried in a contracted position, and the remains appear to have been buried rapidly, suggesting that they may have died and been burried as a result of some natural event, without any input from either other Neanderthals or early Modern Humans.

See also... DNA from a 37 000-42 000 modern Human jaw from Romania.     Neanderthals first appeared in Europe around 300 000 years ago and were replaced by anatomically modern Humans between 45 000 and 35 000 years ago. Genetic studies if modern Human populations show that almost all non-Africans have traces

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