Neandertal Cannibalism and Neandertal Bones Used as Tools in Northern Europe
The team implemented a multidisciplinary assessment of the archaeological collections from the Troisième caverne of Goyet in Belgium excavated almost 150 years ago. The morphometric analysis and taphonomic examination of thousands of bone fragments combined with isotopic and genetic analyses allowed the researchers to identify 99 new Neandertal remains making the Goyet collection the largest Neandertal collection of Northern Europe. The remains were directly radiocarbon dated to 40,500–45,500 years ago, making them some of the youngest Neandertals in Northern Europe. Genetic analyses conducted on 10 specimens doubled the number of complete Neandertal mitochondrial DNA sequences recovered so far and genetic comparisons confirmed low genetic diversity of European late Neandertals.
The Goyet Neandertal remains show anthropogenic modifications – cutmarks and percussion marks – that provide clear evidence for butchery activities. They were intensively exploited and exhibit evidence of skinning, filleting, disarticulation and marrow extraction that can be interpreted as Neandertal cannibalism. It is however impossible to determine whether the Neandertal remains were processed in the framework of symbolic practices or if they were seen as ordinary food sources in the same manner as the numerous horse and reindeer remains that were butchered in the same way at Goyet.
Undisputed evidence for Neandertal cannibalism had previously been documented at two sites in Spain (El Sidrón and Zafarraya) and two in France (Moula-Guercy and Les Pradelles) but Goyet provides the first example in Northern Europe.
In addition, four of the Goyet Neandertal bones – a femur and three tibias – were used for retouching the edges of stone tools. Animal bone retouchers are common in Neandertal sites but Goyet is one of only four sites to have yielded retouchers on Neandertal skeletal elements and the sole to have produced multiple examples. The Goyet specimens may have been selected among the fragments produced by the butchery activities to be used as retouchers while they were still fresh. Neandertals may thus have been aware that they were using human remains but it is impossible to state whether this was part of a symbolic activity or if it was induced by a functional motivation.
Placed in the context of Northern Europe, the Goyet discovery highlights considerable diversity in mortuary behavior among late Neandertals in the period immediately preceding their disappearance. None of the Neandertal sites from the region provide evidence for the treatment of the corpse similar to that documented for Goyet. Instead they show possible primary and secondary deposits, including burials. Additionally, the Northern European late Neandertal sites have yielded various stone tool technocomplexes. This opposition between significant behavioral variability and low genetic diversity of the late Neandertals thus opens up questions about the social implications of the differences observed as well as the dynamics that may have existed between these late Neandertal groups. As such, the work presented brings new essential data to the understanding of the time period that ended in the disappearance of Neandertals.
Interestingly, the Troisième caverne of Goyet is also where the same research team has recently identified the first modern human remains of Belgium securely associated to the Upper Paleolithic. Their genetic analyses have contributed new data towards the understanding of the demography of early modern European populations (see Posth et al. in Current Biology and Fu et al. in Nature).