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Neanderthal cannibalism is less surprising than you think

  Neanderthal cannibalism is less surprising than you think

A new study shows that a group of Neanderthals in southeast France resort to cannibalism to survive less time. If that says something about Neanderthals, it is that they were not so different from us – good and bad.

Something terrible happened in the Moula-Gersi cave in Southeast France about 1
20,000 years ago, the archaeologists who excavated the site in the early 1990s discovered the bones of six Neanderthals in the vicinity to the east wall of the cave, dissected and mixed with deer bones and other wild animals. This mixing of bones, as if the dead Neanderthals were thrown away with the remains of their food, is strange enough; there is a lot of evidence that Neanderthals usually bury their dead. But in Moula-Guercy, at least six Neanderthals – two adults, two teenagers and two children – received a very different treatment. Their bones and those of the deer show almost the same traces of cutting, scraping and cracking, a type of damage usually associated with slaughter. "When many human remains are found on an undisturbed residential floor with similar ways of disability. mixed with animal remains, stone cannons and fireplaces, they can legally be interpreted as proof of cannibalism, "Alban Defleur and Emanuel Declauf wrote in a recent article in . the ankles, elbows and legs of the dead show signs of cutting and cutting to cut off the large tendons for dissection, and the hind legs still carry the marks of stone tools used to remove the muscles as well as the stones and hammers and the anvils. to open the bone to get into the brain inside. Whoever did the job was thorough. On a skull, Defler pointed out "the successive signatures on the same edge of the stone instrument showing the filming of the temporal muscle." This is the broad muscle in the form of a chewing fan. And at least one of the lower jaws of the Neanderthals in the teenage girls had traces that suggested the tongue was cut off. Two of the phalanges (finger bones) even have scars that look more like Neanderthal teeth than all predators.

During the past twenty years archaeologists have been discussing what this means. Evidence of possible cannibalism has emerged in several other places across Europe, though not everything is clear as the Mula-Gersi scene. We understand relatively little about Neanderthal life, so it is easy to wonder whether defiling (with or without eating) the dead was part of a funeral ritual; there is a precedent for that in some human cultures, after all. But we have evidence of deliberate, attentive funerals from at least 17 locations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia; suggestions for cannibalism are much rarer and it does not seem that the bones of Mula-Gersy have been discarded with any care after the fact.

Instead, a new environmental study in Southeastern France at that time suggests that the pubic scars of the bones are the work of desperate people struggling to survive. Or, as the archaeologist TW White pointed out in a 2003 document, "People usually eat because they're hungry, and most prehistoric cannibals are probably hungry."

The Neanderthals lived for tens of thousands of years. in a cold steppe where large mammals like reindeer and wool mammoths walked in herds. What we know about Neanderthals so far, based on the chemical analysis of their bones, shows that meat is an important part of their diet and that they rely less on plants and fish than many modern human harvesting hunters.

very similar to us – enough like us to produce children with Homo sapiens and leave traces of their DNA in today's genomes – their bodies were built a little differently. According to some studies, the average Neanderthal had needed more calories to continue: about 3,500 to 5,000 a day. For this they relied on a larger, more abundant game.

But things eventually changed (which is perhaps the shortest summary of human history we will ever get). About 130,000 years ago, the world began to become warmer; of marine sediments and sea ice nuclei, we know that global temperatures have risen to about 2 ° C higher than today, and sea levels have risen by about six to nine meters (19.69 to 29.53 feet ). Landscape Neanderthals have flourished for millennia and have become warmer and drier. The smaller species of deer grazed less often than the large flocks of the steppes.

Forests are a challenging place for modern human hunter-gatherers to make their living, and such relatively small prey may not have been enough to support the Neanderthals. Some of Moula-Guercy's teeth have thinner enamel strips (called linear enamel hypoplasia) that mark the times of severe illness or malnutrition. These people have had a difficult life and were probably near hunger several times.

Indeed, if Defleur and Dasclaux are right, things have become just post-apocalyptic for the group that probably uses Moula-Guercy as a summer and autumn hunting camp (based on layers of artifacts and bones in place). Neanderthal sites dating from the last interwar period are much less common than during the ice age before and after, which may suggest that most Neanderthals have abandoned the region to a more hospitable climate, or simply failed to experience the change – the problem is a long way

The density of the Neanderthal population has always been rather rare compared to later groups of modern humans. In any case, a version of the story means that the group in Moula-Guercy may be among the only ones left in the area. The rest is too easy to imagine, as the tooth traces of these bones tell their own story.

A very human tragedy

The same story, pierced through our whole story: The Great Hunger of Fourteenth-century Europe, The Hunger. Time at Jamestown, Donner's Party, survivors of a 1972 plane crash in the Andes and Algonquin Tales of Vendigo

Based on the distribution of the remains and how many fragments of the broken bone are still compatible, Defleur Dasclaux says the bodies in Moula-Guercy are probably a sign of a single, desperate case of cannibalism, not a long-term strategy. The remains of all six people in a combination would feed a group of 15 to 25 people (about the size of the average group of hunters-gatherers today) for about two days – maybe four days with careful distribution. The subsequent layers of artifacts suggest that the Neanderthals continue to return to use the camp in the later years, although there is no way to tell whether they were the same individuals or whether they knew what had happened there. this is the only way to survive, take a psychological tax, and we have to wonder how the Neanderthals from this site have processed their experience. We know that the Neanderthals are cognitively much like us; creating art and jewels, using symbols to communicate their ideas, and burying their dead. So how would they feel that they ate their dead to survive? We can only speculate. "

" The cannibalism emphasized in Baume Mula-Gersi is not a sign of beast or sub-humanity, "Defleur and Dasklo wrote. If nothing else, it is a perverse human history of tough choices in desperate times

Journal of Archaeological Science 2019. DOI: 10.1016 / j.jas.2019.01.002;

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