Victims of cannibalism -- Neandertals or science writers?17 May 2009
So I told you I was going to be beating the press. The Guardian’s Robin McKee picks up the story of the Les Rois “Neandertal”:
How Neanderthals met a grisly fate: devoured by humans
One of science's most puzzling mysteries - the disappearance of the Neanderthals - may have been solved. Modern humans ate them, says a leading fossil expert.
Now, I suppose it’s no surprise to see The Guardian running with the most sensationalized possible angle. Of course, if you are reading the blog, you got the story five days ago with a balanced account of the paper, all the uncertainties about whether the specimen in question is a Neandertal, and a paraphrase of paper’s own interpretation of the cutmark evidence:
The authors point out that many of the faunal remains are also cutmarked, including mandibles apparently smashed open. I suppose this may be construed as evidence for cannibalism -- at the extreme, that the fearsome modern humans were hunting down the last Neandertals. And there's no particular reason to think that this isn't cannibalism at Les Rois, but given the scarcity of the sample, it's not nearly so strong as the evidence at some other sites.
The authors suggest that this may fit in with a pattern evident at other Upper Paleolithic sites, in which human remains were deliberately altered or processed for symbolic purposes. There is a perforated human tooth at the site, evidently created for use as a pendant. Some kind of mortuary practice is probably just as consistent with the scanty information we have as cannibalism.
All in all, I didn’t think the story was all that sensationalistic to begin with – you have to assume a lot to put a human’s teeth around a Neandertal bone here. If anything, McKee buries the lede – assuming that this mandible was a Neandertal, it and the unassociated Neandertal-like teeth in the same level are quite possibly the earliest diagnostic specimens associated with the Aurignacian!
Believe me – I know from sensational angles. Just wait until the next story….