These teeth reveal the very unpleasant fate of a Neanderthal some 65,000 years ago.
Researchers have re-examined two Neanderthal teeth and proven that the incisors were once eaten and then regurgitated. The new study, led by archaeologists from the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris and published in the journal Paleo, asks the question: what (or who) would do such a thing?
The teeth were discovered at a famous archaeological site near Marillac, France. First excavated in 1967, archaeologists have since discovered a wealth of Neanderthal and other animal remains dating back to the Pleistocene era.
Scientists had previously struggled to identify the teeth as the stomach acid and digestive enzymes of whatever ate them had caused damage to enamel and dentine. So much so, the researchers first thought they were the milk teeth of cattle or deer. The researchers added that it’s fairly likely many collections of skeletal remains contain partially digested human teeth that have been mistaken for the teeth of other mammals.
Now armed with the knowledge that these teeth belonged to a Neanderthal, the team were tasked with piecing together the scenario of how they were swallowed and partially digested. Was the Neanderthal hunted down by a predator, scavaged upon, or even cannibalized?
Previous archaeological work at the same site found many Neanderthal bones that had been hacked and slashed, suggesting they had been butchered and eaten. However, the researchers say that cannibals are not the prime suspect.
A much more likely culprit is the cave hyena, also known as the Ice Age spotted hyena, a much larger, extinct relative of the modern-day hyena in Africa. This species would have been one of the largest animals around at the time and instances of Upper Palaeolithic rock art show that the beast would have also been found in France. Other archaeological finds have also suggested that they liked to munch on human remains.
Obviously, archaeologists remain cautious about specific events like this that occur over 65,000 years ago, but it seems like this species fits the bill.
"At that time, it was probably the most dangerous carnivore in Western Europe," Bruno Maureille, director of research at the CNRS, told Live Science. "When you see the size of a hyena mandible, it is something that is more than impressive."
So, it looks like this unfortunate Neanderthal died, then had its face chewed off by a cave hyena who then threw up. What a way to go.