Controversial Study Suggests Early Humans Feasted on Neanderthals

By Eliza Strickland | May 18, 2009 8:56 am

Neanderthal jawboneEarly humans and Neanderthals may have clashed violently during their brief coexistence in Europe, a new study suggests, and humans may have either eaten their Neanderthal opponents or taken their teeth as trophies. Anthropologist Fernando Rozzi and his colleagues conducted a new analysis of a jawbone found in a cave in southwest France. They say that the jawbone probably belonged to a Neanderthal, and that it shows cut marks similar to those found on reindeer that were butchered by early humans.

Rozzi believes that the jawbone was cut in the process of removing flesh and the tongue, a technique also used on the deer that early humans frequently fed on. He believes this proves that Neanderthals were fair game for human consumption, too. “Neanderthals met a violent end at our hands and in some cases we ate them,” Rozzi said…. “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 [The Guardian]. But his theory is likely to provoke intense argument from other researchers, who believe that humans and Neanderthals had little interaction.

The Neanderthals were a sturdy hominid species distinct from modern humans; they lived across Europe around 300,000 years ago. They managed to survive several ice ages before dying out around 30,000 years ago, around the same time as human beings arrived on the continent from Africa…. One theory for the Neanderthals disappearance is that they couldn’t compete with humans, who had better brains and more sophisticated tools, for scarce resources such as food. Other scientists believe they were more susceptible to the impact of climate change [Daily Mail].

The new study, published in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences, has incited debate even within the research team. Says coauthor Francesco d’Errico: “One set of cut marks does not make a complete case for cannibalism.” … It was also possible that the jawbone had been found by humans and its teeth used to make a necklace, he said [The Guardian].

Related Content:
80beats: Rough Draft of the Neanderthal Genome is Complete!
80beats: Neanderthal Tools Were a Match for Early Homo Sapiens’
80beats: Neanderthal DNA Shows They Rarely Interbred With Us Very Different Humans
80beats: Give Neanderthals Some Credit: They Made Nice Tools
DISCOVER: Works in Progress asks whether we rubbed out Neanderthals, or rubbed off on them

Image: Fernando Rozzi, et al.

  • Nick

    Well, considering modern-day humans still practice cannibalism (i don’t care how much our societies have differentiated, they’re still human even if they live naked and eat each other), I’d say there’s a good possibility that at 30 to 50 thousand years less civilized than we are now we did eat any and every thing we could get in our mouths that didn’t kill us. Especially since the threat of starvation to a hunter/gatherer society is always just around the corner.

    Considering how many species humans have driven beyond the brink of extinction, there is a very large chance that we too drove Neanderthals beyond the brink. After all, back then they would have just been another tribe, and point me to a period in history where tribes (or nations) haven’t been killing one another.

  • yrag

    The article states: “Early humans and Neanderthals may have clashed violently during their brief coexistence in Europe”

    If I understand correctly, our human forebears entered Europe about 45 thousand years ago. Neanderthals remains at Gibraltar indicate that they may have survived until 24,000 years ago. That’s an approximately 20 thousand year overlap—hardly what I would consider a “brief coexistence”! No?

  • Rolf

    Maybe your relatives were cannibals but not mine.

  • johnn costello

    Has anyone considered the fact that when a neanderthal won the fight they may have had us for dindin ?

  • john

    Hi, Rolf,
    No doubt, there is a lot of cannibalism among d’Errico’s relatives, as every archaeologist on this period knows…

  • kate sisco

    As an interesting aside, consider why cave art was practiced deep inside caves requiring much planning for lighting, pigments, etc which has led to almost any theory being considered. Here I offer mine: the practice of representational ‘seeing’ painting was a forbidden practice and why? Because it was deviant. It was not normal. What was normal was ‘seeing’ as an out of body experience. Thirty years ago history/natural art books included strange depictions of what seemed to be the scene as seen from above. One assumes since the Neanders possessed this quality, the ability in the CroMagnons was seen as evidence that some crossover occurred, perhaps in cannibalism. In as much as this out of body art was made long after civilization started, one can consider that the out of body ‘seeing’ became a ‘talent’ defining a shaman or wizard, etc., slowly disappearing from the remaining homo species, us. The new normal, representational painting from a standing on the ground point no longer had to be hidden, it was as everyone saw.

  • Alex

    “[Rozzi] believes this proves that Neanderthals were fair game for human consumption, too.”

    The concept of cannibalism is a taxonomy *we* use when comparing Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon, but not necessarily one *they* used. Whichever group may or may not have eaten the other, it’s entirely possible they did not view the group they were eating as part of their group.

    In other words, a cannibalistic Cro-Magnon may have felt no more guilt or concern than they felt eating a rabbit while eating a Neaderthal.

  • Danlantic

    Here’s an idea I’ve had for years.

    What if the Neanderthals were covered with hair like a gorilla? They lived in a northern climate. It would be a good adaptation.

    We represent them with hair like a modern human and then they look a lot like us. But if they were fur covered a human would perceive them as some sort of ape. Many cultures eat monkeys and kill apes and do not perceive it as murder.

  • megan

    It was only a sample not a pile like a whole village slaughtered like a herd of deer. Aztecs sacrificed and killed enemies and citizens, so have various other human groups. Spiritually to consume the powers of their victims or in honor of a god. And like others mentioned, in regions there could’ve been tit for tit killings/cannibalism.

    Modern humans and Neanderthal both probably had instances of rapes, consensual sex, wars, murders, cannibalism against each other and themselves. What’s so shocking or abhorrent about facts & reality? I touted intermixing between Cro-Magnon & Neanderthal since the possible time/location overlaps were discovered. Plus there were all of the movies implying such. DNA tests prove it and now everyone wants to make Neanderthals angels and geniuses. They were just a different ‘type’ of human being – no less good or evil. Just not as good at speaking or technology.

  • romel

    I agree, humans have proved that they always invade and kill those with least technology and tool (Indians) Go humanity……….when do we stop killing animals and each other??


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