Neandertals ate each other—at least once in a while—according to a new analysis of bones unearthed in a Belgian cave. The remains were excavated near Goyet beginning in the 19th century and now sit in museums in Brussels.
The outdated excavation techniques make it impossible to reconstruct how these Neandertals lived, but when researchers examined the bones, it was unmistakably clear what happened to them after they died. Many of the bones were covered in cut marks and dents caused by pounding, indicating that the meat and marrow had been removed.
The researchers also spotted what appear to be bite marks running up and down finger bones. The marks were identical to those found on reindeer and horse bones also uncovered at the site, suggesting all three species were prepared and eaten, the researchers report this week in Scientific Reports. A few of the Neandertal bones also showed additional wear and tear, suggesting they were later used to shape stone tools. The bones are between 40,500 and 45,500 years old, which is before Homo sapiens arrived in the region, so the only possible culprits are the Neandertals themselves.
Although scientists knew that Neandertals had practiced cannibalism in Croatia, this is the first evidence of it in northern Europe. No one yet knows if Neandertal cannibalism was a ritual practice, reserved for special occasions and imbued with special meaning, or if they were just really, really hungry.