An examination of three skeleton fragments from two adults and one child suggests that Neanderthals may have manipulated the remains of their deceased shortly after they died. But the reasons for this remain unknown. The findings were published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology this week.
Discovered in 1934, a site named Marillac near the Ligonne River by Charente, France, was used by Neanderthals about 57,600 years ago. More than 20,000 animal remains have been discovered there—90 percent reindeer, and the rest were horse, bison, and a few carnivores—along with flint tools made from non-local materials. The site showed no evidence of habitation or fireplaces, no traces of charcoal, and no bones that appear to have been burned. It was a hunting camp.
Now, an international trio led by María Dolores Garralda of Universidad Complutense de Madrid examined the shafts of three long bones unearthed at Marillac between 1968 and 1980: a right arm bone (radius) and a left leg bone (fibula) that belonged to two adults and part of the right thigh bone (femur) of a child who died at the age of 9 or 10. On all three bones, the team identified evidence of manipulations made perimortem, or right around the time of death. These included spiral fractures (created by a rotating force) and percussion pits (marks impressed on the bone’s surface, like with a hammer).
There are two large cut marks close together on the child’s femur (pictured above), fractures created by a series of blows to the right leg, and several other breaks that were made while the bone was still fresh. The team also identified some defleshing cut marks made with flint tools. The bone shafts of the two adults showed similar markings, and none of these appear to have been made by animal gnawing. “Some Neanderthal groups cut and tore apart child or adult corpses shortly after death,” Garralda explains in a news release.
But as for why, the team isn’t sure. "They might have been rituals—still in the 21st century these continue in certain parts of the world—or for food—gastronomic cannibalism or due to need," Garralda adds. There were a lot of animal bones at the site, so cannibalism is not a foregone conclusion. "To date we have been able to demonstrate these manipulations at several Neanderthal sites in Europe... but we have not been able to demonstrate the consumption of human meat by Neanderthals.”