Remains found at Goyet in Belgium indicate horses were the main meat source for local Neanderthals, but the ancient bones also reveal an even more grisly insight – evidence of cannibalism.
Researchers have released their findings following analysis of 99 Neanderthal remains from the Troisième cavern at Goyet, dated to between 40,500 and 45,500 years ago.
The Goyet Neanderthal bones showed distinctive evidence of human modification, the researchers reported in the journal, Scientific Reports.
Hélène Rougie and her colleagues said the modifications provided clear evidence of butchery, and four bones were assessed as having been used for retouching stone tools.
Goyet, they said, was the first site to have yielded multiple Neanderthal bones used as retouchers.
“It is most likely that they were processed by their fellow Neanderthals as no modern humans are known to have been in the region at the time,” the study team wrote.
The Goyet remains have provided the first unambiguous evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism in Northern Europe, and have also highlighted considerable diversity in mortuary behaviour among the region’s late Neanderthal population in the period immediately before their disappearance.
Researchers have found cannibalised Neanderthal remains in southern Europe, but the Belgium evidence of cannabilism is the first uncovered in Northern Europe.
Neanderthals are known to have also buried their dead, with mortuary behaviours that have often proved difficult to interpret in Palaeolithic contexts. This tended to suggest that cannabalism was not necessarily a universal practice.
The Troisième cavern at Goyet, part of a large cave system in the Mosan Basin, was excavated in the latter half of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and again at the end of the 1990s.
The collection of animal remains from Goyet has been remarkable, comprising more than 30,000 specimens, many of which have yet to be identified.
Horse and reindeer are by far the most frequent species in the studied assemblage, representing 86% of the 1556 identified specimens.
Among identified Neanderthal, horse and reindeer specimens, the tibia was most abundant.
The most intensely processed Neanderthal elements were femurs and tibias, which are also the bones with the highest nutritional content (meat and marrow). The same pattern was documented for horse and reindeer bones.
There was evidence of skinning, filleting, disarticulation and marrow extraction for all three species, the researchers reported.
The study team noted that the retouchers made from Neanderthal bones were made from fragments of dense bones with comparable mechanical properties to the horse and reindeer bones used for the same purpose.
They said the available information made it impossible to determine whether the modifications observed on the Neanderthal skeletal material represented symbolic practices or were simply the result of the processing of immediately available sources of food.
Rougier, H. et al. Neandertal cannibalism and Neandertal bones used as tools in Northern Europe. Sci. Rep. 6, 29005; doi: 10.1038/srep29005 (2016).