Neanderthals are known to feast on animals like horses and reindeer, but deep in the caves of Goyet in Belgium, scientists found evidence that showed modern human's closest evolutionary relatives were cannibals that ate each other.
40,000-Year-Old Bones In Goyet Cave
The bones in Goyet date back to around 40,000 years ago, when the Neanderthals were nearing their end and were about to be replaced by Homo sapiens, with whom they are also known to have interbred.
The bones, which belonged to four adults, a child, and a newborn show clear signs of cutting and fractures that hint the marrow within was extracted.
While studies suggest that the Neanderthals took care of the remains of their deceased and even held burial rituals, there is a growing body of evidence that shows the now-extinct human species also ate their dead. Other cases of cannibalism among Neanderthals have been found in El Sidron and Zafarraya in Spain and Moula-Guercy and Les Pradelles in France.
Neanderthal Bones Discovered More Than 100 Years Ago
Edouard Dupont, one of the fathers of paleontology who died in 1911, collected bones and tools from several caves including those of Goyet in 1867.
The discoveries have been housed in the archives of the Brussels Institute of Natural Sciences for more than a hundred years when in 2004, the institute's anthropology head Patrick Semal found a jaw tip that belonged to a Neanderthal. Since then, scientists have been sorting through the fragments that Dupont believed were animal bones in a bid to find other traces of the ancient man.
Traces Of Cutting Hint Neanderthals Were Cannibals
Anthropologist Helene Rougier, from California State University, Northridge, and colleagues have proven from the bones from Goyet that the Neanderthals practiced cannibalism, based on the traces of cutting that showed attempts "to disarticulate and remove the flesh," as described by Belgian archaeologist Christian Casseyas.
He added that the cavemen broke the bones in a similar manner they break those of the animal they ate to extract the marrow.
Neanderthals Also Used Bones Of Their Kind As Tools
Rougier said that some of the bones were used to make tools.
"The Goyet Neandertal bones show distinctive anthropogenic modifications, which provides clear evidence for butchery activities as well as four bones having been used for retouching stone tools," the researchers wrote in their study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports in July 2016.
Why Neanderthals Practiced Cannibalism
The reason behind the Neanderthals' cannibalism remains a mystery as well as the extent to which they ate their dead, but experts have some idea.
Some anthropologists think that the Neanderthals had periods of seasonal starvation. When they were really starving, the cavemen may have resorted to consuming the remains of their dead. Rougier thinks it is possible that there is meaning behind the behavior.
"I don't know how to interpret the reason behind this cannibalism. It can be purely food, but it can also be symbolic," she said.
The Neanderthals became extinct 30,000 years ago.