Belgian Neandertals Were Cannibals

The different modifications: the femur left shows percussion pits and a percussion notch and the femur right shows cutmarks. Femur right also shows retouching marks left from its use to retouch the edges of stone tools. (Photo: RBINS)
06/07/2016
Belgian Neandertals Were Cannibals
post by
Reinout Verbeke

Neandertals that lived near the Belgian caverns of Goyet were cannibals. Several bones show cut marks and percussion marks. It is the first evidence of Neandertal cannibalism in northern Europe.

An international team of researchers, two of them from our Institute, discovered traces of cannibalism on dozens of bones from the caverns of Goyet, near Namur. High resolution images show anthropogenic modifications – cut marks and percussion marks – that provide clear proof of butchery activities. The remains exhibit evidence of skinning, filleting, disarticulation and bone marrow extraction. The many remains of horses and reindeer found in Goyet were processed the same way.

Evidence of Neandertal cannibalism had previously been documented at four sites in France and Spain, but the Goyet fossils provide the first example in northern Europe. For now, it is impossible to determine whether the Neandertal remains were processed in the framework of symbolic practices or if they were seen as ordinary food sources.

The researchers also found that the bones were reused. Four of the Goyet Neandertal bones – a tighbone and three shinbones – were used to sharpen the edges of stone tools (in silex). These cut marks are commonly found on animal bones, but rarely appear on Neandertal bones.

Biggest Neandertal Site in Northern Europe

The research team re-examined thousands of human and animal bones that were excavated by the Belgian geologist Edouard Dupont in 1868 in Goyet. Of the previously unidentified bones, 99 proved to be Neandertal remains (from at least five individuals), making Goyet the largest Neandertal collection in northern Europe.

Radiocarbon dating shows that the Goyet Neandertals lived between 40.500 and 45.500 years ago, just before the arrival of modern man in Europe and shortly before the extinction of Homo neanderthalensis. The discovery highlights considerable diversity in mortuary behaviour: deceased Neandertals were buried in the Spy caverns, while in Goyet they were probably eaten. The stone tools of these different ‘late’ Neandertal groups in this region were also different. Genetically speaking, however, the groups were very similar. Different behaviour but genetically alike: this suggests that small groups of Neaderthals ceased to have cultural exchanges shortly before their disappearance.

The human remains from Goyet, used for this study in Scientific Reports, are preserved in our collections and those of the Royal Museums of Art and History. The Goyet collection also contains the remains of modern humans, which recently delivered new insight into the earliest ancestors of the current European population.

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