Neanderthals Participated In Cannibalism Says New Research

Cannibalism. The word brings to mind the stuff of horror movies, of secretive jungle tribes or the Donner Party. However, a new discovery in Belgium has determined that our Neanderthal ancestors had an affinity for cannibalism that was heretofore unrealized.

The Neanderthal bones found in Belgium date between 40,500 and 45,500 years old, and they bear unmistakable signs of cannibalism. The Neanderthal bones exhibit "indentations" where scientists believe they were hammered open to harvest the bone marrow within. The rib cages of the skeletons have been pried open. The bones also exhibit marks that were created by primitive knives used to shear flesh away from the bone. The Neanderthal bones found in the Belgian cave were found amidst numerous bones of animals that all bore similar marks and indications of what we would refer in modern terms as field dressing. The scientists researching the Neanderthal discovery put the skeletons of the humans back together and found that they recreated one child and four adults -- all of whom were the victims of cannibalism.

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[Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images]The discovery of the cannibalized Neanderthals is not unique to prehistoric humans. Similar discoveries have been made in Portugal, France, and Spain. However, according to a report on the discovery in the journal Scientific Reports, the Neanderthal find in Belgium is much farther north than those other discoveries, and actually poses more questions than it answers. Were the Neanderthals killed and eaten out of simple necessity or hunger, or was their butchery part of some sort of ancient ritual? Were the cannibalized Neanderthals part of a warring culture? For now, scientists are unsure. Researchers have pointed in the past to evidence that the Neanderthals utilized funeral practices for their dead, sometimes burying them. If that is indeed the case, what was the rationale -- if any -- behind the butchering of the Belgian Neanderthals that were discarded in the same matter as wild game? Were they treated as no more important than a routine meal?

Some scientists, however, argue the point that Neanderthals actually exhibited funeral - or mortuary - practices. Flowers found at the site of one Neanderthal "burial" site that were originally thought to have been left by fellow Neanderthals could have been merely left by an animal at the same site, claim critics.

For now, the researchers studying the Belgian Neanderthal site are sticking to the facts and not making any claims as of yet about a possible funeral site. The Neanderthals at the site existed just before the estimated time of when the Neanderthal species went extinct, about 40,000 years ago. Thus far, none of the other Neanderthal excavation sites that exist in the region bear any signs of cannibalism. In fact, there was another discovery less than 25 miles away in which two Neanderthals appeared to be buried together, side by side.

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[Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images]Researchers speculate that Neanderthals actually lived in small groups, or tribes, and its quite possible that their behaviors could have quite possible varied widely from group to group. While one group of Neanderthals may have honored their dead by burying them in some sort of primitive ritual, other groups may have had no compunction about eating their dead. Moreover, the group in Belgium may have had no problem with hunting down and eating an adjacent group of Neanderthals much as they would a reindeer or other animal. Still, the evidence in Belgium may be misleading. Not enough data is available to discover whether or not this particular group of Neanderthals felt they had to consume their fellow man out of necessity -- much like the Donner party.

[Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images]