Neandertals Turned to Cannibalism, Bone Cave Suggests

December 5, 2006

Struggling for survival, Neandertals turned to cannibalism—even brain-eating—some 43,000 years ago, says a new study of mutilated bones discovered in a Spanish cave.

The fossil remains also suggest that these prehistoric humans looked different from their northern counterparts.

Bones from at least eight individuals showed clear signs of cannibalism, including defleshing, dismemberment, and skinning, according to the study team.

The report provides some of the clearest evidence yet that Neandertals (often spelled "Neanderthals") ate their own kind, says paleoanthropologist Antonio Rosas of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid. Rosas is the lead researcher for the study, which is published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Evidence of cannibalism include cut marks made by stone tools used to remove flesh.

The manner in which the fossil skeletons were broken apart is also telling, the study teams says.

Bones and skulls look to have been smashed open to get at the marrow and brains inside, Rosas said. "Brain is quite nutritious for fat and proteins, but especially fat," he added.

The skull remains of younger Neandertals also bear incision marks, which are said to indicate that the victims were skinned.

Why this might have happened remains unclear, Rosas says.

One idea is that the youths were skinned for their scalps. "It is a very interesting possibility, but we need to study this in further detail," he said.

The new research supports previous studies that have suggested that Neandertals turned to cannibalism to stave off starvation when times got tough.

Growth patterns seen in the Spanish Neandertals' teeth show that the ancient humans suffered periods of malnutrition just after they were weaned, Rosas says.

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