Neanderthals, the now-extinct cousins of modern humans, mutilated and may even have devoured their dead, new research has found.
Analysis of marks found on the bone fossils of two adults and a child Neanderthal discovered in the Poitou-Charentes region of France show evidence of cuts made shortly after death to separate limbs from the body.
A study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology revisited the 57,600-year-old fragments of the three individuals, which were found between 1967 and 1980.
Maria Dolores Garralda, professor at the Complutense University of Madrid and main author of the study told SINC: “Some Neanderthal groups cut and tore apart child or adult corpses shortly after death using lytic instruments.”
The separated bones show “no evidence of cuts or traces of carnivores' teeth” suggesting they were removed deliberately for either food or funeral ceremony.
Garralda added: “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."
The team points out it is impossible to confirm the procedure points to cannibalism because of the proliferation of animal bones found at the site – mostly reindeer – which are also likely to have been a food source.
But it’s not the first time Neanderthals have been suspected of committing cannibalism.
In 2010 the remains of a what is believed to have been a family group of Neanderthals were found in a cave in El Sidron, Spain.
Carles Lalueze-Fox who led the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, told LiveScience: “There are many different markings in many different bones in all 12 individuals, including traditional cut marks to disarticulate bones and remove muscle insertions, snapping and fracturing of long bones to extract the marrow.”
That the remains were dated to 49,000 years ago indicates the cannibals were other Neanderthals, “since modern humans were not around at that time in Europe”, he added.
Suggestions that modern humans ate Neanderthals have been discounted by scientists.
Neanderthals who lived in western Asia and Europe, co-existed with early modern humans for several thousand years before dying out around 30,000 years ago.
A genome taken from a 36,000-year-old skeleton last year succeeded in shedding new light on interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals.
Known as the Kostenki genome, the DNA contained evidence the man shared, as with all people of Eurasia today, a small percentage of Neanderthal genes, confirming previous findings which show a period when Neanderthals and the first humans to leave Africa for Europe briefly interbred.