— Jaw remains of Neanderthal fossils showing hypoplasia lines (arrowed) – evidence of starvation (Image: Antonio Rosas)
Neanderthal fossil bones in block of cemented sand and clay, with foot bones on left, and ribs and vertebra on right, from El Sidrón cave site in Asturias, Spain (Image: Antonio Rosas)
Neanderthals lived a desperately tough life, sometimes so close to starvation that when one of them died their compatriots would fall upon the body and devour it, according to new research.
Scorned as clumsy, idiotic brutes with little in the way of developed culture, our pitiless modern view of Neanderthals may be tempered by new findings that provide insight into the terrible life our evolutionary cousins faced.
Antonio Rosas, of the National Museum for Natural Sciences in Madrid, Spain, and colleagues studied 43,000-year-old Neanderthal remains found in the El Sidrón cave in the north of the Iberian peninsula.
The cave is extraordinarily rich in Neanderthal remains. About 1300 Neanderthal fossils have been excavated since its accidental discovery in 1994. And the picture emerging from analysis of the remains is now enriching our understanding of the much-maligned species.
Rosas and colleagues examined the teeth of eight individuals found in the cave and found hypoplasia lines evidence that during growth, the individuals had probably gone through a period of starvation. Moreover, cuts discovered on some of the bones suggest that cannibalism was practiced by the group.
One possible explanation is that ecological conditions forced these people to eat whatever was at hand, even human flesh, says Rosas. Another possibility is that cannibalism had some symbolic meaning, in a similar way to human hunter-gatherers that practice it. Signs of cannibalism could tell us something about the spiritual life of Neanderthals, Rosas says.
By comparison with fossils from sites in southern Europe, Rosass work shows there were morphological differences between Neanderthals in the north and south, with southern individuals having broader faces and jaws. This supports the idea that Neanderthal populations were diverse, possibly as result of different environmental factors.
Neanderthals were seen as brutish but I want to believe that our picture of them is being changed with new discoveries, says Rosas. All paleaoanthropologists feel some kind of love for their study species, and in my case, its the Neanderthals.
Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0609662104)