Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Who's on the Table?

Today's post is about prehistoric food.  (Yes, again.)  Specifically, it's about the diet of the Neanderthals, an early human species whose time partly overlapped that of homo sapiens sapiens, and may have been pushed to extinction, in part, by us.

A decade or two ago, it was fashionable to presume that homo neanderthalensis was a gentle, non-violent species.  Now, we have archaeological evidence that calls that claim into question.

In caves at Goyet, Belgium, archaeologists have found 40,000 year-old bones from five Neanderthals--an infant or young child, and four adults (or possibly adolescents) that had been cut and cracked in ways that one would employ in order to suck out and eat the marrow inside.

In short, it appears that at least some Neanderthals were cannibals.  The age of the bones places this cannibalism late in the Neanderthals' history, not too long before they became extinct.  A news article about the find may be found and read here.

Another article states that other European caves with Neanderthal remains have been found that contained Neanderthal bones with similar signs of butchery for food purposes.

These facts raise possibilities about the reason for the Neanderthals' dietary choice that may, or may not, be consistent with the view of them as a gentle people.  They may have chosen, for example, to ritually consume their dead as a way of retaining their good qualities, or of keeping their spirits with the tribe.  They may have eaten their dead out of desperation, because they were unable to obtain sufficient food otherwise.  This may be the likeliest possibility, as archaeological finds of Neanderthal teeth show signs of periods of starvation, which their owners might have survived by eating other Neanderthals.

Or the Neanderthals may have killed and eaten other Neanderthals, of the same tribe or of different tribes, for food on a routine basis.  We just don't know.  

Perhaps discoveries will be made in other caves, of similarly broken homo neanderthalensis bones that will allow us to make inferences as to the circumstances in which the marrow was eaten.  For now, we can only conclude that eating parts of human bodies has a much earlier place in the long history of human food than was previously imagined.

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