Last issue, I wrote about the biochemical evidence that cannibalism existed among tribes of the American southwest. Now comes more evidence that cannibalism is an ancient and not all that uncommon practice.
In the Fiji Islands, Berkeley student David DeGusta analyzed human bones collected from a 2000-year-old refuse heap. Based on the patterns of breaks, burns, and cut marks, he concluded that cannibalism was indeed practiced among the ancient Fijian Islanders.
The practice of eating your fellow hominids may extend to the Neanderthals as well. A French and American team found that 100,000-year-old Neanderthal remains in France bear the signs of the same butchery techniques that were used on animals. Marks on skulls indicate that muscles were filleted from the faces of two young victims, that the tongue was sliced out of one, and that leg bones were smashed to get at the marrow and braincases broken open to get at brain matter. One thing bone had had muscles sliced away. Cut marks on a collar bone show that the arm of one victim was disarticulated at the shoulder.
The bones show no signs of burning. This suggests the flesh was eaten raw.
What is fascinating is that Neanderthals were also capable of ceremonial burials, treating some of their dead with obvious reverence. Why were different corpses accorded such disparate treatment? Were the victims of cannibalism enemies? Or were they eaten out of desperation and famine?
Anthropologist Fred H. Smith of Northern Illinois University believes this varied treatment of the dead demonstrates cultural complexity. “When you see some Neanderthals practicing intentional burial and others practicing cannibalism, that is a clear indication of behavior that is multidimensional — a pattern that mirrors the behavior of more modern people.”