Bone fragments from a Belgian cave have yielded the first evidence of cannibalism among Neanderthals living in northern Europe between 40,500 and 45,500 years ago, says a new study into Neanderthal skeletal material.
Coming from the third cavern of the Goyet caves in Belgium, which was excavated nearly 150 years ago, the bone fragments reveal that this group of late Neanderthals gnawed on the flesh of their kind and then used the remaining bones as tools.
The evidence emerged from a re-analysis of the Goyet material by a team from the University of Tübingen and the University of the Basque Country. The researchers were able to identify 99 previously uncertain bone fragments as belonging to Neanderthals.
The team, who detailed the findings in the journal Scientific Reports, found cut marks, pits and notches on the bones.
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"These indications allow us to assume that Neanderthals practiced cannibalism," Hervé Bocherens, from Tübingen's Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment, said.
The bodies were skinned, cut up, and the bone marrow extracted.
Bocherens noted that it is impossible to say whether the remains were butchered as part of some symbolic act, or whether the butchering was carried out simply for food.
"The many remains of horses and reindeer found in Goyet were processed the same way," Bocherens said.
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Four bones -- one thigh bone and three shinbones -- clearly showed that Neanderthals used their deceased relatives' bones to fashion stone tools.
While this is the first evidence of Neanderthal cannibalistic behavior in northern Europe, other examples have been documented at the sites of El Sidrón and Zafarraya in Spain and two French sites, Moula-Guercy and Les Pradelles.
The new findings open up a debate regarding the way late Neanderthals dealt with their dead before their demise about 30,000 years ago.
According to Bocherens, none of the other Neanderthals sites have yielded indications that the dead were treated as they were in Goyet. On the contrary, they have yielded burials.
"The big differences in the behavior of these people on the one hand, and the close genetic relationship between late European Neanderthals on the other, raise many questions about the social lives and exchange between various groups," Bocherens said.
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