Neanderthal Cannibalism

The article on neanderthal cannibalism has finally been published. My first thought is that it has been somewhat overhyped. The cannibalism only forms a small part of the article (see below). It is, however, an interesting paper even without the cannibalism aspects.

Over 1,300 skeletal specimens attributed to Neanderthals have been found, as well as 333 lithic artifacts, at El Sidro´n in Spain. The skeletal specimens are distributed as follows:
Anatomical region No. of specimens
Skull and mandible 97
Teeth 108
Upper limb 257
Lower limb 159
Ribs and vertebra 137
Others and indeterminate 565
Nonhuman 7
Total 1,330
Using these remains the Rosas et al article examines the paleopathology and the geographical variation of traits. The remarks about cannibalism come in the paleopathology section of the paper. After examining the teeth and mandibles for signs of hypoplasia, interproximal wear and lesions the authors turn to the rest of the skeleton, noting:

Anthropic activity is evinced by the presence of cut marks, flakes, percussion pitting, conchoidal scars, and adhering flakes. Immature skull bones (frontal, temporal, and parietal) show a higher frequency of cut marks, possibly indicating skinning activities. Long bones (humerus, ulna, radius, and tibia) show short and deep cut marks related to disarticulation processes.
In contrast to other sites (35, 36), individuals seem to have been treated differentially. For instance, Mandible 3 shows clear cut marks on the ramus basal border (Fig. 3), whereas the others do not display any evidence of defleshing.

They go on to point out that:

Yet, the clear evidence of bone breaking (conchoidal percussion scars) is presumably related to processing for marrow and brains, which strongly suggest a nutritional exploitation. Given the high level of developmental stress in the sample, some level of survival cannibalism would be reasonable.[emphasis mine – afarensis]

It is clear from the above quote that Rosas et al are not arguing that Nenaderthals engaged in cannibalism full time.
From there they mention a north-south gradient in mandible morphology based on a sample of 32 Neanderthal and 23 European Middle Pleistocene mandibles concluding that:

The analysis of mandibular variability conforms to a pattern of geographic distribution in a north- south polarity within Neandertal samples, in which southern populations may have developed a slightly distinctive craniofacial pattern. This conclusion may find support in recent research…, showing that mandibular morphology records geographic patterning in modern humans.

The takeaway point here is that we ae starting to get large enough samples that we can look at geographic variation and population history. One final note. They were able to extract some mtDNA from some of the specimens – which will be the subject of a future post.
In the meantime I am looking for the following three articles. If someone with access to the respective journals could email them to me (see the Contact tab above for my email address) I would appreciate it.
Neanderthal mtDNA
Human cannibalism in the Early Pleistocene of Europe (Gran Dolina, Sierra de Atapuerca, Burgos, Spain)
Authors: Fernández-Jalvo Y.1, 2; Carlos Díez J.3; Cáceres I.4; Rosell J.5
Source: Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 37, Number 34, 1999, pp. 591-622(32)

I almost forgot, here are two pictures of the neanderthal material…
Tim Jones at Remote Central has more…

4 Responses

  1. And now we know how to give a solid nuts-and-bolts paper some acclaim: Cannibalism.

  2. That sums up the situation. It was actually a pretty good paper on the other aspects.

  3. Hi – just to say thanks a lot for linking to my post – I think that’s the first time I’ve seen anything suggesting that Neanderthals had appreciable (facial) regional differences. Also thanks for the great blog, only discovered it a few weeks back. best, Tim

  4. Yes, usually Neanderthal variability is talked about in terms of (possible) transitions to human anatomy. I think it is partially a reflection of sample size. We are finally getting large enough sample sizes, in various geographic regions, to be able to address those kinds of issues.

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