It was climate change that pushed Neanderthals, the earliest cannibals in primitive history, to eat each other, a new study revealed.
Neanderthals have long been identified as carnivores who hunt and eat animal meat, but a team of scientists in France believe that this subspecies of archaic humans resorted to butchering corpses as the climate turned hotter about 120,000 years ago.
Led by Emmanuel Desclaux and Alban Defleur, scientists examined the remains of six Neanderthals that were found in a cave at Baume Moula-Guercy in southern France in the 1990s.
The corpses comprised of two adults, two adolescents, and two children, and they all showed clear signs of cannibalism. Such evidence is not new, since bones that bear marks of cannibalism were also uncovered at sites in Spain, Belgium, and Croatia.
What makes this study significant, however, is that it provides a reason as to why Neanderthals would do what they did.
Apparently, as climate change wiped out the animals that were the main food supply of these Neanderthals, they turned to cannibalism to survive, researchers said.
Neanderthals Were Cannibals Because Of Climate Change
The Neanderthal remains examined in the new study were discovered in a layer of sediment dated to the last interglacial period, which occurred around 128,000 to 114,000 years ago. During that period, temperatures spiked higher compared to the era that came before it and after it.
What researchers noticed was that the drastic changes in temperatures caused a change in food sources.
For instance, remains of big mammals such as bison, woolly mammoths, and reindeer were often found before the interglacial period. After the climate became warmer, the remains of tortoises, snakes, and rodents were instead discovered.
What the findings at the Baume Moula-Guercy proved is that as the climate warmed, grasslands turned into temperate forests, and Neanderthals would find fewer animals to hunt.
"The change of climate from the glacial period to the last interglacial was very abrupt," said Desclaux. He explained that the individuals eaten were consumed at a short period, prompted by desperation.
In the meantime, details of the new study were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Cannibalism In Modern Times
Michelle Langley, an archaeologist from Griffith University who was not involved in the new study, said cannibalism is always looked upon as a "contentious thing" and people find it "revolting."
Langley said the study marks the first time that evidence proves that Neanderthals in the interglacial period were in "desperate times."
"They weren't doing anything different to what modern humans would do in the same situation," said Langley.
However, these depend largely on the circumstances because cannibalism can also occur as a war crime.
For instance, during World War II, it has been documented that Japanese soldiers resorted to cannibalism. Historian Toshiyuki Tanaka analyzed archives in Australia and found that some Japanese Imperial Army soldiers became cannibals during the war.
Tanaka, an associate professor at University of Melbourne, found at least 100 cases of Japanese soldiers who ate flesh of Asian laborers, Australian soldiers, and indigenous people in Papua New Guinea.
The reason for this cannibalism? The supply lines for these soldiers were cut off.
"These documents clearly show that this cannibalism was done by a whole group of Japanese soldiers, and in some cases they were not even starving,″ said Tanaka.