Neanderthals are often depicted in fictional accounts as Homo sapiens’ slower, dumber, more brutish counterparts. But a new discovery in Belgium’s Goyet Caves suggests that they may have been even more savage than popularly believed. There is evidence in the Caves that Neanderthals were cannibals.
Neanderthal bones found in the Caves display signs of having been cut and broken to reach their marrow. The bones were from a baby, a young child, and four individuals that could have been adolescents or full adults.
According to Christian Casseyas, a Belgian archaeologist, “It is irrefutable, cannibalism was practised here.”
The current Goyet investigation is helmed by a California State University Northridge anthropologist named Helen Rougier. The Caves have been known to archaeology since the 1800’s, but the cannibalism charge is new. The Caves were inhabited by Neanderthals since the Paleolithic Era.
The Neanderthal bones were damaged in exactly the same way as other animal bones found in the Caves, such as horse and reindeer, which were major food animals for Neanderthals.
The cannibalism thesis runs a bit contrary to the prevailing trend in recent Neanderthal research, which has portrayed them as more civilized than previously supposed. They have been shown to have conducted ritualized burials and have a more sophisticated culture than mere cavemen. Becoming cannibals kind of throws a wrench in that. Or maybe it throws a bone.
Cannibalism cases have been recorded in Neanderthal remains before. Finds in Spain and France have demonstrated similar evidence that Neanderthals didn’t always treat each other’s remains with respect.
Neanderthals were physiologically distinct from Homo sapiens. They had wider rib cages and larger pelvises, and were shorter than us. Some scientists have actually speculated that the morphological differences could have been a product of differences in our diets. A study published last year in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology suggested that Neanderthal anatomy may have reflected adaptations to a high-protein diet that was necessary to survive the Ice Age. The cannibalism finding lends a macabre cast to that hypothesis.
According to the study, Neanderthals may have gotten up to 85% of their calories from animal fats. Almost all of that animal fat would have come from big game animals. In response, their livers and renal systems would have enlarged, to process the fat. Those changes would have been attended by a commensurate enlargement of the organs’ surrounding anatomy.
Another study published last year theorized that the Neanderthal diet consisted of 20% vegetable matter, based on bone isotope data collected from Neanderthal bone collagen.
The age of the Goyet bones may give a clue as to why cannibalism was being practiced. Carbon dating places the remains at about 40,000 years old. During that time, Neanderthals were teetering on the brink of extinction. They were being edged out by an influx of Homo sapiens, likely resulting in resource competition and even warfare.
To be fair to the Neanderthals, they were highly intelligent creatures whose behavior was probably just as varied as our own. And pushed into a corner, they may have resorted to cannibalism to survive.