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Neanderthals Beat Up Their Deceased Brethren: Study

Apr 14, 2015 03:25 PM EDT
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Strange 160-million-year-old fossils reveal that the earliest mammals could glide

A bizarre new study shows that Neanderthals used to beat up their deceased brethren, cutting, beating and fracturing their bones as part of some strange ritual.

That's at least according to the fossil remains of two adults and a child found at the Marillac site in the French region of Poitou-Charentes. Since the site was first unearthed, scientists have identified it as an ancient hunting area for Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis), given the plethora of human and animal fossils found there - along with Mousterian tools.

However, the most interesting discovery has been of the bone remains of these hominids.

For the first time, scientists analyzed the fragments of three individuals found between 1967 and 1980 at the French site, dating back some 57,600 years. They include an incomplete diaphysis (middle part of long bones) of a right radius, another of a left fibula and the majority of a right femur - the latter belonging to a child aged 9-10. When these remains were compared to those of other Neanderthals and modern humans, the scientists confirmed not only the strength and rounded form of Neanderthal bones, but they also identified intriguing markings on the bones made very shortly after the individuals' death.

"Some Neanderthal groups cut and tore apart child or adult corpses shortly after death (perimortem) using lytic instruments," María Dolores Garralda, the study's main author, explained in a statement.

For instance, the child's femur fragment shows two large cut marks half a centimeter apart, suggesting that the bone was fractured when still fresh. This means right after the child's death, someone was trying to separate the upper and lower extreme of the femur, where the joints are located. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : M.D. Garralda et al) Pictured: Cut marks observed on the femur of the Neanderthal child.

"The upper edge exhibits marks of a "post-mortem" impact with conchoidal markings (those that does not follow natural separation positions)," the researchers said.

"Given the morphology of the fractures, it may be that the body of this child was manipulated shortly after death. The right leg received a series of blows that fractured the femur, and the cut marks identified are anthropic in nature; in other words, there is no visible evidence of animal bites," noted Garralda.

Similarly, the bones of the two adults exhibited these and other markings as well. The fragment of the radius, possibly belonging to a man, also has small, fine cut marks made with flint tools shortly after death.

"The most significant are three striations together crossing over each other while the bone was still fresh," the study describes.

As for the fibula, although the fresh fractures of both extremes can be seen, there are also signs of beating at the lower end. But "there is no evidence of cuts or traces of carnivores' teeth," Garralda said.

Interestingly, unlike the other two fragments of bones analyzed, the fibula fossil has numerous manganese stains - a mineral used to give bones a black color. While the severe post-mortem injuries suggest that Neanderthals could have been cannibals or vicious hominids, it's also possible that these acts were merely part of some ancient strange ritual.

"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 explained.

What's more, this isn't the first evidence that Neanderthals beat up their dead brethren.

"To date we have been able to demonstrate these manipulations at several Neanderthal sites in Europe, which are of course much more recent, including in groups of contemporary humans, but we have not been able to demonstrate the consumption of human meat by Neanderthals (although this has indeed been done in other much more modern populations)," she added.

Neanderthals may be depicted as simple, brutish individuals, but this and other research suggest that they are smarter than you think, and there may be more to them than meets the eye.

The findings were published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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