The bones of a newborn, a child and four adults who lived around 40,000 years ago have revealed that Neanderthals were irrefutably cannibalistic.
Found in the Goyet caves, Belgium, the bones show clear signs of cutting and fractures to extract the marrow within.
The evidence dates back to the time when Neanderthals were nearing the end of their existence and were being replaced by our ancestors Homo Sapiens, with whom they also interbred.
Evidence shows that 4% of the DNA of modern Europeans and Asians is believed to have been inherited from Neanderthals.
The bones were rediscovered in Brussels Institute of Natural Sciences’ archives, and now an international team led by Helene Rougier, an anthropologist at California State University, has proved Neanderthals were cannibals.
Christian Casseyas, who leads tours for the public at the caves, said Neanderthals ‘broke these bones in the same way that they broke those of the reindeer and horses found at the entrance of the cave, certainly to extract the marrow’.
Rougier, whose work on the Belgian cave was published last July by Scientific Reports, a journal of the Nature group, told AFP:
Indeed, we can conclude that some Neanderthals died and were eaten here.
Some of these bones have also been used to make tools to touch up the edges of flints to re-sharpen them.
Other hints of Neanderthal cannibalism have emerged previously in Spain and France.
But the reasons for and the extend of the cannibalism remain a mystery.
Was it systematic? Was it only at certain particular moments?
I don’t know how to interpret the reason behind this cannibalism. It can be purely food, but it can also be symbolic … The reason remains open.