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Neandertal cannibalism? Maybe not

CHICAGO—Scientists have long argued that Neandertal remains from the site of Krapina in northern Croatia exhibit evidence of cannibalism. The fragmentary nature of the bones, along with cut marks on a number of fragments, were said to be signs that our closest relatives feasted on one another. But a new study suggests that the nicks seem to be the result of much more recent handiwork.

Paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Jörg Orschiedt of the University of Hamburg in Germany reported yesterday at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society here that cut marks in the Krapina fossils he studied are randomly distributed and did not necessarily occur in spots that would permit de-fleshing (such as where muscles attach to bones). What's more, the scratches varied – some were shallow and others deep.

“I kept thinking it doesn’t make sense,” Orschiedt told ScientificAmerican.com.

An alternative explanation to cannibalism dawned on him as he sifted through photos of the bones. Specifically, he came across a picture of a bone fragment with the letter F for femur (the thighbone) scrawled on it. It turns out the bone was mislabeled—it was actually part of a shinbone, not a thighbone—but what caught Orschiedt’s eye was that the cut marks interrupted the F. He concluded that the scratches were likely made inadvertently by a researcher—possibly during measurement of the bone with sharp instruments—after the bone was labeled, probably in the early 1900s.

One Krapina specimen that Orschiedt believes does have genuinely ancient cut marks is a famous partial skull known as the C skull. These nicks, which appear in the center of the forehead, are encrusted with minerals that could only have accumulated long ago. What do the marks mean? “It’s tempting to say it has to do with burial customs,” he says, although it is impossible to know the exact nature of those practices.

As for the fact that many of the Krapina Neandertal bones are broken to bits, which investigators have long attributed to the hominids extracting nutritious marrow, Orschiedt believes that hungry carnivores were responsible for much of the damage. He also thinks that as the roof of the rock shelter crumbled over time, falling rocks smashed the bones.

If Orschiedt is right, what is arguably the most famous example of cannibalism among our closest relatives can no longer be held up as such. That does not mean Neandertals never ate their own, however. Neandertal remains from other sites bear signs that they snacked on one another.. But Orschiedt says some of those fossils, too, should be re-examined in light of his observations at Krapina.

Image of a Neandertal replication courtesy of JacobEnos via Flickr

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