Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How Neanderthals lived

Deep in a cave in the forests of northern Spain are the remains of a gruesome massacre. ... They were the remains of Neanderthals who died 50,000 years ago. ...

What happened to the El Sidrón victims? In a paper this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Spanish scientists who analyzed the bones and DNA report the gruesome answer. The victims were a dozen members of an extended family, slaughtered by cannibals. ...

No animal bones washed into the Tunnel of Bones along with the Neanderthals’. In fact, the only other things scientists have found there are fragments of Neanderthal stone blades. And when the scientists closely examined the Neanderthal bones, they found cut marks — signs that the blades had been used to slice muscle from bone. The long bones had been snapped open. From these clues, the scientists concluded that the Neanderthals were victims of cannibalism. Scientists have found hints of cannibalism among Neanderthals at other sites, but El Sidrón is exceptional for the scale of evidence. ...

All three men had the same mitochondrial DNA, which could mean they were brothers, cousins, or uncles. The females, however, all came from different lineages. Dr. Lalueza-Fox suggests that Neanderthals lived in small bands of close relatives. When two bands met, they sometimes exchanged daughters.

“I cannot help but suppose that Neanderthal girls wept as bitterly as modern girls faced by the prospect of leaving closest family behind on their ‘wedding’ day,” said Mary Stiner, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona.
--Carl Zimmer, NYT, on Neanderthal culture

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