Neanderthals Cannibals?

In a stunning finding, scientists found evidence in northern Spain of cannibalism by Neanderthals. Some 1,800 bone fragments were used for DNA analysis to support their hypothesis. According to The New York Times report,

Spanish scientists who analyzed the bones and DNA report the gruesome answer. The victims were a dozen members of an extended family, slaughtered by cannibals.

It seems common knowledge that Neanderthals were lacking in refinement by modern standards, but this is a bit much. This is indeed “food for thought”, since there is evidence that part of our genome is inherited from Neanderthals.

Neanderthal.jpg“Man”

So, whether we like it or not…

It?s official ? each of us is part Neanderthal. Yes, I know ? some would say that they have already dealt with someone whose behavior can seem to be Neanderthal-like. The first draft of the Neanderthal?s genetic blueprint, or genome, has recently been reported and gives new insight into our deep ancestry. Early modern humans and Neanderthals are believed to have diverged into two distinct species between 270,000 and 440,000 years ago.

What can we learn from the new genetic information?

Using 21 samples of Neanderthal bones collected in Croatia, dated more than 38,000 years ago, scientists found that our genetic makeup is 99.84% identical to that of Neanderthals; for comparison, 96% of our DNA is identical to that of chimpanzees. The tiny difference of 0.16% includes some fascinating detail, such as genes that regulate metabolism ? critical for appetite and diet – as well as genes involved in skin, skeleton, and the development of cognition, necessary for higher learning.

That our genetic background is closely related to our ancient ancestors is not surprising. However, this study gives definitive evidence for the first time that early modern humans and Neanderthals interbred with our ancestors in Europe and Asia. An estimated ?mixing? between the two species of about 2% was revealed from the genetic data. This discovery is a departure from the classic ?Out of Africa? theory that the human race began in Africa.

In 2004, I had the pleasure of visiting the laboratory of the lead scientist of this discovery, Prof. Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology located in Leipzig, Germany. At that time, his description of their hopes to sequence the complete genome of a Neanderthal seemed far-fetched and exciting. Prof. Pääbo says that ?They live on in some of us? ? indeed, perhaps in all of us. This should give all of us pause whenever we find ourselves believing that humans are somehow special amongst the vast diversity of species that live on this planet.

To learn more about this discovery, I highly recommend the following:

? Science podcast, as well as a superb overview, including video, produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A version of this article was originally published on NJ Voices.

Comments

  1. #1 HP
    December 20, 2010

    FWIW, scanning my feed reader, I thought the title of this post was “Neanderthals Cannabis?”

    Mind you, I’m not disappointed, just momentarily confused.

    Carl Zimmer recently posted a nice audio overview of current Neanderthal research. So I thought I was caught up. But cannabis! Okay, cannibals. Oh, well.

  2. #2 megan
    December 21, 2010

    Who were the Cannibals? Were they fellow Neanderthal?
    I’d believe Homo Sapien Sapiens more prone to hunt and eat them as modern human tribes are known into modern era to eat other humans.

  3. #3 Birger Johansson
    December 21, 2010

    Big deal! Cannibalism has always been present in some human societies. Just look at some findings from old Anazasi sites.
    As for starvation canibalism, it is with us even today, as distinct from culturally approved canibalism.
    And what about humans who make lamp shades from human skins? That was not long ago…

  4. #4 Jeff
    December 21, 2010

    The New York Times reporter Carl Zimmer wrote: “The victims might have wandered into the territory of another band of Neanderthals. For their act of trespass, they paid the ultimate price.” Of course, this is conjecture based upon the DNA evidence found in the bone samples, some 50,000 years old.
    According to Dr. Todd Disotell, an anthropologist at New York University, this “gives us the first glimpse of Neanderthal social structures.”

  5. #5 frog
    December 21, 2010

    Wow — you seem stunningly unaware of the massive amounts of evidence of at least episodal canibalism among modern humans, ranging from NG cultural material, to Anazasi remains to Central Mexican corpses to European cannibalism pits, to anti-prion genetic defenses widespread among modern humans.

    What would be shocking would be to discover that Neanderthal’s were never cannibalistic.

    And this “each of us is Neanderthal” — your Eurocentrism is showing, dude. Australian aborigines are unlikely to be significantly “Neanderthal” — nor Kung San Africans.

  6. #6 Deborah
    December 21, 2010

    Right. The adjective “gruesome” is utterly unwarranted hyperbole (ditto the silly conjectures in the NY Times), and if the author is trying to say this sets Neanderthals apart from “modern” Homo sapiens, that is way off base. Clearly there needs to be more analysis of the archaeological context of this site before we understand what the (alleged) cannibalism was about—whether it was starvation cannibalism as suggested above, or culturally approved—in the latter case, isn’t it often part of funerary ritual?

  7. #7 dewey
    December 21, 2010

    While you’re talking about “Neanderthal-like behavior,” kindly remember that they were the apparent victims of direct or indirect genocide by H. sapiens sapiens, not vice versa.

  8. #8 Jeff
    December 21, 2010

    In my review of the paper published in PNAS (see: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2010/12/14/1011553108.abstract), this study represents the largest Neanderthal group for which reliable DNA sequence could be obtained, allowing the scientists to determine how the individuals were related. I agree that there is much more research to be done and that some of the reporter’s terms were used for stylistic and not scientific purposes. The DNA evidence is consistent with three adult females belonging to different lineages, and three adult males belonging to the same lineage – Neanderthals could have exchanged females from different groups.

    According to the paper, “all types of skeletal remains show evidence of anthropic activities associated to cannibalism…”

    What distinguishes this study from others is that it draws upon extensive DNA evidence taken directly from skeletal samples dated some 50,000 years ago.

  9. #9 Jeff
    December 21, 2010

    Thanks for the link to the audio interview. Indeed, neanderthal cannabis would be a very different topic – a new twist on the medical use of marijuana??

  10. #10 ginarex
    December 21, 2010

    Would the actual facts please stand up? I keep reading that our DNA is partly Neandertal, and then that it definately isn’t! It’s as if geneticists have succumbed to CNN disease – Totally messed up and confusing info presented as “NEWS” – yikes!

  11. #11 Jeff
    December 21, 2010

    That is a perception issue, I believe. The data from the Paabo group in Germany was incontrovertible – I cite their studies towards the end of my article with some very informative links from the journal Science.

  12. #12 Gods Eating Tasty Souls
    December 22, 2010

    oh, tell the truth! you know these folks were just trapped while trying to cross Donner Pass, or were just trying to survive after an airplane crash!

  13. #13 Birger Johansson
    December 22, 2010

    Big deal! Cannibalism has always been present in some human societies. Just look at some findings from old Anazasi sites. As for starvation cannibalism, it is with us even today, as distinct from culturally approved cannibalism. And what about nazis who make lamp shades from human skins? That was not long ago…

  14. #14 dan bazan
    December 22, 2010

    I liked the photo of the neanderthal mock-up. It looked like photos I’d seen of Charles Bukowski.

  15. #15 dan bazan
    December 22, 2010

    I liked the photo of the neanderthal mock-up. It looked like photos I’d seen of Charles Bukowski.

  16. #16 merc
    December 23, 2010

    This genome discovery about our link to the Neanderthals has finally put to bed something I sensed all along but just couldn’t nail down. But finally, there it is: the roots of the outlandish, brutish, selfish behavior of so many in the Republican Party. Yes, the unexplainable, detestible actions of some of our fellow humans is undoubtedly the result of them being direct decendents from some cannibalistic branch of the Neanderthal family tree.

  17. #17 Monado, FCD
    December 24, 2010

    For some reason, I thought it was the other way around… that there was more evidence of butchering and eating of humans among the early H. sap. sapiens.

    As for modern humans—Sawney Bean, anyone?

  18. #18 George
    December 26, 2010

    It is highly unlikely that anyone but other Neanderthal’s
    committed the cannibalism.As the original article points out, the blades in the cave used to cut flesh were only Neanderthal technology- there was quite a bit of difference
    between H. sapiens and H. neanderthalis in blade technoogy.

  19. #19 DRF
    December 26, 2010

    Please note one punctuation error: In American English, periods and commas go inside the quotation marks as in “food for thought,” like so.

  20. #20 Jeff
    December 26, 2010

    Thank you for catching this!

  21. #21 wildcard
    December 28, 2010

    As expressed, at least in part, by several other comments here, despite arguments about ‘style of blades’ which is based I’d suspect on minimal evidence – I’m much more willing to go with the ‘theory’ that this cannibalism was the work of H. sapiens, and could even be considered as at least partial cause of the disappearance of H. neanderthalis

  22. #22 THOMAS
    December 29, 2010

    Taste like chicken ? NOT!!!…more like Pork , so i’m told !
    …..Explains volumes about Cheeney and GOP’ers…..

  23. #23 Pete
    December 30, 2010

    I’m still not sure how this conclusively shows that Neaderthals were the butchers, although it sounds like they were definitely the meal. Maybe the culprit borrowed someone else’s Ginsu?

  24. #24 suzannewriter
    December 31, 2010

    There is some really interesting stuff on the Science website about the Neaderthals, and a very silly app on the Smithsonian site to see how you might have looked as a Neanderthal – see http://www.genome-engineering.com/sequencing-the-neanderthal-genome-the-science-of-prehistory.html for links

  25. #25 slate
    January 1, 2011

    The evidence of cut marks and broken bones suggesting the marrow was sucked out is compelling in terms of indirect evidence, however, the lack of direct evidence such as coprolite containing human remains proving human flesh was digested leaves me skeptical that this was in fact an act of cannibalism. Many other explanations are viable. This may include ritualistic mutilation, warfare, witchcraft etc. I realize that these explanations may defy Occam’s razor and climb higher on the ladder of inference, but these should at least be discussed and considered. Even if this is an example of cannibalism, we must not fall into the trap of negative evidence and believe that the only possible scenario is that a rival tribe of neanderthals cannibalized their own species over a territorial dispute. In other words, the evidence given leaves the hypothesis unproven and wide open for discussion. So lets discuss it.

  26. #26 Web Desgin
    July 15, 2011

    This is my favorite blog in this section :)

  27. #27 Peter
    August 10, 2011

    Neanderthals were different biological species, though close to modern man – fact that can be considered proven conclusively.
    The ancient people of all kinds were cannibals, were especially fond eating aliens.

  28. #28 steam cleaner reviews
    August 19, 2011

    Would the actual facts please stand up? I keep reading that our DNA is partly Neandertal, and then that it definately isn’t! It’s as if geneticists have succumbed to CNN disease – Totally messed up and confusing info presented as “NEWS” – yikes!

  29. #29 steam cleaner rental
    September 6, 2011

    Right. The adjective “gruesome” is utterly unwarranted hyperbole (ditto the silly conjectures in the NY Times), and if the author is trying to say this sets Neanderthals apart from “modern” Homo sapiens, that is way off base. Clearly there needs to be more analysis of the archaeological context of this site before we understand what the (alleged) cannibalism was about—whether it was starvation cannibalism as suggested above, or culturally approved—in the latter case, isn’t it often part of funerary ritual?

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