Sunday, May 17, 2009

Evidence that Neanderthals were Eaten by Humans? Not Yet.

Sometimes, the news media can't resist a sensational, yet false, headline. I caught a glimpse of the following headline:

Humans May Have Eaten Neanderthals

Yep, I clicked through to the news story, and it included these lines:
Scientists and day-dreamers have long wondered, "What happened to the Neanderthals?" those ancient, distant cousins of modern day humans. Well, the answer may be, we ate them.
The story cites a recently published study, and interviews the lead author. I decided to track down the original paper, and was surprised to see that the full article is available online from the Journal of Anthropological Sciences.

I read the abstract, scanned the article, and searched for the word "cannibal." Here is the most relevant quote from the paper:

"In our case, however, contextual pieces of information needed to favour the cannibalistic interpretation are missing."

Silly journalists! Well, the paper does seem to show that Homo sapien and Homo neanderthal remains were found in the same context, so it is interesting. Just not as dramatic as the news headline would have us believe.

Here's the abstract from the journal article:

The view that Aurignacian technologies and their associated symbolic manifestations represent the archaeological proxy for the spread of Anatomically Modern Humans into Europe, is supported by few diagnostic human remains, including those from the Aurignacian site of Les Rois in south-western France. Here we reassess the taxonomic attribution of the human remains, their cultural affiliation, and provide five new radiocarbon dates for the site. Patterns of tooth growth along with the morphological and morphometric analysis of the human remains indicate that a juvenile mandible showing cutmarks presents some Neandertal features, whereas another mandible is attributed to Anatomically Modern Humans. Reappraisal of the archaeological sequence demonstrates that human remains derive from two layers dated to 28-30 kyr BP attributed to the Aurignacian, the only cultural tradition detected at the site. Three possible explanations may account for this unexpected evidence. The first one is that the Aurignacian was exclusively produced by AMH and that the child mandible from unit A2 represents evidence for consumption or, more likely, symbolic use of a Neandertal child by Aurignacian AMH. Th e second possible explanation is that Aurignacian technologies were produced at Les Rois by human groups bearing both AMH and Neandertal features. Human remains from Les Rois would be in this case the first evidence of a biological contact between the two human groups. The third possibility is that all human remains from Les Rois represent an AMH population with conserved plesiomorphic characters suggesting a larger variation in modern humans from the Upper Palaeolithic.

The full paper is here.

UPDATE: John Hawks comments on the sensationalism as well.

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