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Cannibal Neanderthals

3 December 2013

Apparently, research presented to the Royal Society  in London by scientists from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, as reported by the Sunday Times, claims a gang of Neanderthals feasted on the raw flesh of another group of Neanderthals (which included their children). At The Independent (see www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/cannibal-neanderthals-spain-ate-…) we have the obligatory picture of ape like men that do not in any way resemble humans in spite of Neanderthals sharing genes and viruses with us. They are sitting round a fire roasting something – which directly contradicts the headline and news blurb which makes a play on the raw meat of the victims being consumed. The bones were not cooked. It must therefore have been extremely difficult for ape men to strip the meat down to the bone – even when they were holding a piece of sharp stone in their hands. Or were ape men proficient butchers – but not very good at catching animal prey?

One can't help but be sceptical when reading stuff like this. The Independent is not your sharpest of newspapers at the best of times – and when you read that the bones were found in a cave system in Spain, washed down a sink hole (see post last week on sink holes) from a rock shelter above, one is left thinking a mountain has been made out of a mole hill. The bones managed to lodge in a small alcove – instead of being washed further, to where ever. The stone tools responsible for the dastardly deed were actually found several miles away – nowhere near the bones. Is this joined up thinking?

The rest of the story is invented – and away with the fairies. No doubt The Independent has given full throttle to their imagination as well but we have to await a paper actually being published on the subject in order to get at the reality. The scientists are alleged to have said Neanderthals, unlike their modern human cousins, were unable to find food in the depths of winter, and therefore this explained the cannibalism. At the heart of the story is the interpretation given to the bones – do they display evidence of cannibalism via human butchery, or were the bodies defleshed for other reasons? What is the nature of the cut marks that made the scientists think they had been butchered with stone tools? Could similar marks have been sustained by bones washed through the cave system due to a flash flood episode – or something like that? Even if the bones had been cannibalised – why would they have done this? Is it necessary to think cannibalism is solely something savages did in order to fill their stomachs – might there not be another reason? 

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