Neanderthals in the Poitou-Charentes region of France engaged in intriguing post-mortem activities, manipulating the bones of recently deceased companions, according to fossil evidence from the Marillac site. The remains of two adults and a child have been discovered, showing signs of cutting, beating, and fracturing. While similar manipulations have been observed at other Neanderthal sites, the purpose behind these actions remains a mystery — whether driven by utilitarian reasons like obtaining food or holding ceremonial significance.
Unearthed at the Marillac site, the fossilized remnants, including animals (predominantly reindeer), humans, and Mousterian tools, designate it as a Neanderthal hunting ground. However, the abundance of hominid bone remains, many yet to be analyzed, sets this site apart.
A recent study, detailed in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, delves into fragments from three individuals dating back approximately 57,600 years. Analyzing an incomplete diaphysis of a right radius, another of a left fibula, and the majority of a right femur (belonging to a child), scientists note distinctive manipulations shortly after the individuals' deaths. These actions, involving cutting and tearing using lytic instruments, were observed on the bones, enhancing our understanding of Neanderthal post-mortem practices.
María Dolores Garralda, a professor at the Complutense University of Madrid and a researcher at the University of Bordeaux, underscores the significance of the findings, highlighting Neanderthals' strength and the unique characteristics of their bones. The mysterious rituals surrounding the deceased Neanderthals deepen the enigma of their cultural practices, prompting ongoing exploration into the motivations behind these intriguing behaviors.
Cuts, beating, fracturing and stains
Examining a femur fragment from a child, estimated to be around 9 or 10 years old, researchers discovered two prominent cut marks, approximately half a centimeter apart. The state of preservation indicates that the bone was intentionally fractured while still fresh, aiming to separate the upper and lower extremes near the joints.
Detailing the findings, the study notes distinctive features in the fractures. The upper edge displays post-mortem impact marks with conchoidal patterns, deviating from natural separation positions. The lower region exhibits a clear, oblique spiral break, suggesting it occurred while the bone was still fresh.
María Dolores Garralda highlights the intriguing possibility that the child's body was manipulated shortly after death. The right leg endured a series of blows resulting in femur fractures, with anthropic cut marks indicating intentional human action, ruling out animal bites.
In the case of the two adult individuals, their bones also reveal intriguing marks. The radius fragment, likely belonging to a man, displays small, fine cut marks made with flint tools shortly after death. Notably, three striations intersecting while the bone was still fresh stand out. Meanwhile, the fibula, while exhibiting fresh fractures at both ends, shows signs of percussion at the lower end, devoid of cuts or carnivores' teeth traces. Remarkably, the fibula fossil presents numerous manganese stains, a prevalent mineral in the cave, imparting a distinctive black color to the bones.
These meticulous analyses provide a window into the post-mortem treatment of these Neanderthal remains, unraveling the intentional actions taken with precision and shedding light on the complexities of their funerary practices.
Cannibalism or rituals?
The scientific team remains puzzled by the motivations behind the Neanderthals' post-mortem manipulations of bones at the Marillac site. The actions, whether rooted in ritualistic practices, gastronomic cannibalism, or necessity, are yet to be definitively explained. While the hypothesis of cannibalism is approached with caution, given the abundance of animal bones on the site, which may have served as Neanderthal food, the exact purpose behind these intriguing manipulations remains elusive.
María Dolores Garralda emphasizes the complexity of the findings, stating, “To date, we have demonstrated these manipulations at several Neanderthal sites in Europe, including in groups of contemporary humans. However, we have not been able to demonstrate the consumption of human meat by Neanderthals, unlike in more modern populations.”
Moreover, alongside the perimortem corporal manipulations carried out by Neanderthals, other fragmented bones at the Marillac site exhibit distinct signs of gnawing or digestion by animals. These markings and deformations serve as a unique aspect, differing from the studied Neanderthal diaphysis. The juxtaposition of intentional manipulations and natural processes adds layers to the enigma surrounding Neanderthal behavior and prompts ongoing exploration into the intricacies of their cultural practices and interactions with their environment.