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Cave evidence chews up cannibalism claims.

In the last decade, anthropologists have increasingly questioned claims of cannibalistic customs in Stone Age and modern societies. A new study adds to the doubt by challenging the long-standing assumption that Neandertals practiced cannibalism in Italy's Guattari Cave between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.

The cave achieved scientific notoriety in 1939 when an archaeologist entered one of its chambers and found an adult male Neadertal skull within what he described as a ring of stones. Someone had apparently struck the individual on the right temple and enlarged the hole at the base of the skull, the scientist observed. The scenario suggested that Neandertals had engaged in ritual cannibalism, killing their compatriot and extracting his brains for consumption.

A Neandertal jaw, probably from the same individual, also turned up among numerous animal bones that littered the cave floor. In 1950, another chamber of the cave yielded a second Neandertal jaw.

But in the first two systematic studies of the cave remains, described in the just-released April CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY, researchers have found no evidence that cannibalism occurred or even that Neandertals consistently inhabited the site.

The cave probably served as a den for Stone Age hyenas, which scavenged the remains of deer, bears and other animals, possibly including an occasional deceased Neandertal dragged from a shallow burial, reports Mary C. Stiner of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Hundreds of animal bones scattered across the floor of the cave come from the relatively small, portable parts of animal bodies typically found in modern hyena dens, Sstiner asserts. The bones show no grooves or "cut marks" crreated by Neandertal-fashioned stone tools, she adds.

Older layers beneath the cave floor, excavated between 1939 and 1955, contain animal bones mixed with stone scrapers and other Neandertal tools. The great number of skull remains from older animals indicates that Neandertals scavenged already picked-over carcasses and returned to the cave with their booty, Stiner maintains.

The allegedly cannibalized Neandertal skull, however, lay on the cave floor in the heart of the hyena den, and shows no signs of tampering by either Neandertals or modern humans, report Tim D. White of the University of California, Berkeley, and Nicholas Toth of Indiana University in Bloomington. The skull displays no polish, no cut or scrape marks, no peeling or flaking and none of the beveling found on apparently cannibalized crania of Melanesians and southwestern Native Americans, the researchers note in their paper.

Gnaw marks consistent with carnivore chewing appear on several parts of the Neandertal skull, White and Toth point out. Moreover, the so-called circle of stones surrounding the skull is an "irregular cluster," not an intentional construction, they argue.

The two new studies offer a "convincing rejection" of claims for Neandertal cannibalism at Guattari Cave, says Jill Cook of the British Museum in London. But other cases of alleged cannibalism may prove less straightforward, she adds. For instance, researchers long viewed human bones found in 1899 at a Yugoslavian cave as the remnants of a cannibal feast that occurred more than 50,000 years ago. In the last six years, some have claimed the bones show no evidence of human modification; others have claimed they contain cut marks created when flesh was removed during ritual reburials, not cannibal gatherings. For now, scientists lack a firm grasp on ancient activities at the Yugoslavian cave, Cook concludes.

Evidence suggesting human cannibalism has emerged at other sites, including a 6,000-year-old French cave (SN: 7/26/86, p.52). But scientific opinion remains split on whether cannibalism was practiced routinely and systematically at such locations or occurred only in rare cases of imminent starvation.
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Title Annotation:new study casts doubt on assumption that Neandertals practiced cannibalism in Italy's Guattari Cave
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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