It’s the story of love at first bite and a tale that scientists find more than a little remarkable.
A group of archaeologists from the University of California, Berkeley, have discovered the first fossil evidence of cannibalism in an ancient Neanderthal man, who, thousands of years ago, died at an isolated cliff overlooking a narrow river in Italy and had his face ripped off and parts of his hands sliced off.
If correct, the discovery adds to evidence of Neanderthals as primitive, primitive savages, and strengthens the view that our distant relatives and maybe even modern humans who ended up there were victims of disease spillover from Europeans who had imported different pathogens to settle down in Eurasia.
“This is the earliest posthumous dissection that we know of in the Homo neanderthalensis, which is our primitive ape cousin,” said paleoanthropologist Samantha Schultz, who led the excavation.
Schultz and fellow archaeologist Chris Stringer, also from UC Berkeley, said the neanderthal, whose name they’re keeping secret to protect his identity, was killed just as he was about to butcher the first of his chosen foods — baby lamb, according to X-rays taken of his hands. They believe that both the skin and the lungs of the lamb were also killed along with him.
But as well as documenting the butchering, the scientists also found the kind of sophisticated tools that Neanderthals might have used.
“We found shells in which we think he tried to break the skins to obtain either meat or to make a hair comb for his brow or a comb for his hair,” Schultz said. “We also found bone shavings that we think might have come from his teeth, but we don’t know whether these were dismembered or fresh.”
“The fact that he was dying on a hill above a river gives us the impression of his being somewhere at the top of the food chain. I think he was probably hunting on top of the hill not far from a river that would be fed by the local forest.”
Most of the animal parts were found along with the bones and carried away by the wind. Because they were found with the man’s skull on the hilltop, Schultz said it would not be surprising if he had somehow consumed human flesh, and they have some evidence to support that.
“Our other hypothesis is that he really did eat some kind of human flesh, perhaps liver or other parts that are normally eaten by Neanderthals,” she said.
Schultz and Stringer said that the dead man may have become infected with a bacteria known as Klebsiella vaginitis (K. vaginosis), which might have included lethal strains. He didn’t die of anything fatal.
“We believe that the horse he was hunting in the butchering process might have been infected with K. vulnitis, which can be fatal and is no doubt the cause of his demise,” Schultz said.
The fact that it was a person who had eaten this meat gave the scientists on their expedition pause.
“This is a very disturbing thing to be studying: human bodies and what they were eating,” Schultz said. “It would be scary if we were to find meat and a fresh mouth wound.”
The dead man was about 29 to 34 years old, believed to be a bachelor, and he probably visited his body parts twice, once before he died and once after he died.
“He could not have died of natural causes,” Schultz said. “As he had some level of control over his life, we’re basically asking, could this have been a murder? We are trying to treat it as a murder mystery.”