Neanderthal cannibalism is less surprising than you think

(credit: Photograph by ORNL)

A new study suggests that a group of Neanderthals in southeast France resorted to cannibalism to survive lean times. If that says anything about Neanderthals, it’s that they weren’t so different from us—for better and for worse.

The bones in the cave

Something awful happened in Moula-Guercy cave in southeastern France around 120,000 years ago. Archaeologists excavating the site in the early 1990s found the bones of six Neanderthals near the eastern wall of the cave, disarticulated and mingled with bones from deer and other wildlife. That mixing of bones, as though the dead Neanderthals had been discarded with the remains of their food, is strange enough; there’s plenty of evidence that Neanderthals typically buried their dead. But at Moula-Guercy, at least six Neanderthals—two adults, two teenagers, and two children—received very different treatment. Their bones and those of the deer show nearly-identical marks of cutting, scraping, and cracking, the kind of damage usually associated with butchering.

“When numerous human remains are discovered on an undisturbed living floor, with similar patterns of damage, mixed with animal remains, stone tools, and fireplaces, they can legitimately interpreted as evidence of cannibalism,” wrote Alban Defleur and Emmanuel Desclaux in a recent paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

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