Neanderthal cannibalism a mystery
Was it ritual, or were they just starving?

David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor

Monday, December 11, 2006

As a major ice age brought freezing cold down to much of southern Europe tens of thousands of years ago, starving Neanderthal families huddled in their caves may have resorted to cannibalism, fresh evidence suggests.

But whether hunger alone drove them to the practice or some kind of ritual act accompanied the eating of other Neanderthals remains a mystery.

The slashed and butchered bones of at least eight Neanderthal people who lived 43,000 years ago were excavated from a cave called El Sidron in the Asturias region of Spain by a research team led by Antonio Rosas, a paleoanthropologist.

The remains of four young adults, two teenagers, one youngster and an infant all bore deliberate cut marks made by the crude stone tools of the era, including saw-toothed knives, skin scrapers and a single hand ax, report Rosas and his colleagues.

There is also evidence that some of the skulls of the eight Neanderthals were skinned, their leg joints were dismembered, and other long bones were broken -- presumably to extract the fat and protein from the rich marrow, Rosas said.

Rosas' team has been excavating the huge cave near the town of Oviedo for nearly seven years and has discovered more than 1,300 hominid bones and scraps of bone there. But what struck Rosas most sharply was that the cave held no remains of animals that might have preyed on Neanderthals; the team found only seven animal bones there -- from one large browsing elk and a fox. He also pointed out there were no tooth marks on the Neanderthal bones that could have been made by a beast of prey.

A report on the new discoveries at the El Sidron cave was published online last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Rosas said in an e-mail that the site adds new insights into the lives and evolution of Neanderthals, but "what is absolutely new" is that the remains of so many individuals were grouped closely together in a small space within the cave. "This is really strange," he said, as they apparently all died together and might have been a single family.

The growth patterns in the tooth enamel of the cave's inhabitants show clear signs of periodic "nutritional stress," meaning starvation, Rosas said. Those signs were particularly striking in the teeth of the infant just after it was weaned and in one of the adolescents whose teeth showed evidence of a condition called dental hypoplasia, which is known to result from, among other causes, severe malnutrition.

With the unusually cold winters of the time, Rosas said, "ecological conditions for their survival were really hard" and so the people must have eaten whatever was at hand to avoid starvation, including the flesh of their fellow hominids.

But starvation may have been only one explanation for cannibalism, he said, because it is also possible that the Neanderthals in the cave resorted to the practice just to complement their meager diets, and did so as part of some obscure and still unknown ritual. "Those signs of cannibalism could tell us something of the spiritual life of the Neanderthals," Rosas said, "but more research is needed."

Questions of cannibalism and whether rituals were involved have been raised at other Neanderthal caves, including the famed Moula-Guercy site in the Ardeche region of southeastern France. At the Krapina and Vindija caves in Croatia, UC Berkeley's Tim White, a noted paleoanthropologist and forensics expert, has examined bones and concluded that all show clear evidence that at times Neanderthals did resort to eating each other.

White is in the Afar Desert of Ethiopia this winter, leading his team in the hunt for fossils of hominids that lived millions of years before the Neanderthals emerged in Europe, and could not be reached for comment.

Fred Smith, a paleoanthropologist at Loyola University in Chicago, said he would "bet big bucks" that Rosas' team had indeed found very strong but very curious evidence of cannibalism.

"Just why so many Neanderthal groups did resort to it is the big question," Smith said in a telephone interview, "and while it's straightforward to read the physical evidence, we can only infer the cultural aspects of how they dealt with their dead. It's impossible for us to infer religious meaning, but it adds to the complexity of their behavior, and in many ways -- if we think that some form of symbolism is involved -- it makes them in some way much more