How Neanderthals met a grisly fate: devoured by humans
A fossil discovery bears marks of butchering similar to those made
when cutting up a deer
* Robin McKie, science editor
* The Observer, Sunday 17 May 2009
One of science's most puzzling mysteries - the disappearance of the
Neanderthals - may have been solved. Modern humans ate them, says a
leading fossil expert.
The controversial suggestion follows publication of a study in the
Journal of Anthropological Sciences about a Neanderthal jawbone
apparently butchered by modern humans. Now the leader of the research
team says he believes the flesh had been eaten by humans, while its
teeth may have been used to make a necklace.
Fernando Rozzi, of Paris's Centre National de la Récherche
Scientifique, said the jawbone had probably been cut into to remove
flesh, including the tongue. Crucially, the butchery was similar to
that used by humans to cut up deer carcass in the early Stone Age.
"Neanderthals met a violent end at our hands and in some cases we ate
them," Rozzi said.
The idea will provoke considerable opposition from scientists who
believe Neanderthals disappeared for reasons that did not involve
violence. Neanderthals were a sturdy species who evolved in Europe
300,000 years ago, made complex stone tools and survived several ice
ages before they disappeared 30,000 years ago - just as modern human
beings arrived in Europe from Africa.
Some researchers believe Neanderthals may have failed to compete
effectively with Homo sapiens for resources, or were more susceptible
to the impact of climate change. But others believe our interactions
were violent and terminal for the Neanderthals. According to Rozzi,
the discovery at Les Rois in south-west France provides compelling
support for that argument.
Previous excavations revealed bones that were thought to be
exclusively human. But Rozzi's team re-examined them and found one
they concluded was Neanderthal. Importantly, it was covered in cut
marks similar to those left behind when flesh is stripped from deer
and other animals using stone tools.
Rozzi believes the jawbone provides crucial evidence that humans
attacked Neanderthals, and sometimes killed them, bringing back their
bodies to caves to eat or to use their skulls or teeth as trophies.
"For years, people have tried to hide away from the evidence of
cannibalism, but I think we have to accept it took place," he added.
But not every team member agrees. "One set of cut marks does not make
a complete case for cannibalism," said Francesco d'Errico, of the
Institute of Prehistory in Bordeaux. It was also possible that the
jawbone had been found by humans and its teeth used to make a
necklace, he said.
"This is a very important investigation," said Professor Chris
Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, London. "We do need more
evidence, but this could indicate modern humans and Neanderthals were
living in the same area of Europe at the same time, that they were
interacting, and that some of these interactions may have been
"This does not prove we systematically eradicated the Neanderthals or
that we regularly ate their flesh. But it does add to the evidence
that competition from modern humans probably contributed to
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