Ancient Climate Change Forced These Neanderthals Into Cannibalism

French researchers say they have found evidence that a group of Neanderthals was forced into cannibalism because their living conditions had become increasingly desperate, likely because of rapid climate change.

During the last interglacial period—between 128,000 and 114,000 years ago—the Earth's climate experienced significant warming, which altered ecosystems and caused a geographical redistribution of plants and animals, according to a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Because archaeological remains from this period are fairly limited, the effect that the warming had on Neanderthal hunter-gatherers in Western Europe had long been poorly understood.

However, new evidence uncovered by Alban Defleura and Emmanuel Desclaux from the Baume Moula-Guercy cave in southeastern France has cast light on the struggles that our evolutionary cousins faced during this time of environmental upheaval.

The cave contained the bones of six Neanderthals first discovered in the 1990s that exhibit signs that cannibalism may have taken place. For the latest study, Defleura and Desclaux examined the layer of the cave floor where the remains were found and that contained material dated from around the last interglacial period, Cosmos reported.

In this layer, the duo examined animal remains, which allowed them to build up a picture of the wildlife before, during and after this period. This analysis revealed that the period of warming caused dramatic and abrupt changes to the local environment in the region, which reduced the number of large prey which Neanderthals hunted—such as bison and mammoth—perhaps leaving them with very little food and no choice but to resort to cannibalism.

"We argue that, on the European continent, the human population collapsed, maintaining itself only in a few regions," the authors wrote in the study. "We further suggest that these environmental upheavals, including depletion of prey biomass at the beginning of the Upper Pleistocene, contributed to the rise of cannibalistic behavior in Neanderthals, as exhibited among remains found at the Baume Moula-Guercy."

According to the researchers, the rapid changes to the environment could have taken place at a relatively fast pace.

"We're not [talking] in terms of geological scale, but more a human scale," Desclaux told Cosmos. "Maybe within a few generations, the landscape totally changed."

The researchers also analyzed tooth enamel, revealing signs of stress in sick or malnourished individuals, supporting their argument.

"For the first time, they have proper evidence that shows they were in desperate times, and they were doing what they need to do to survive," Michelle Langley, an archaeologist from Griffith University in Australia, who was not involved in the study, told Cosmos. "They weren't doing anything different to what modern humans would do in the same situation."

The authors of the latest study stress that their findings don't rule out the possibility that cannibalism took place for cultural or ritualistic purposes.

"There have been cases of cultural cannibalism, but in this particular case that does not seem to be the case," Desclaux said.

In fact, possible evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism has been uncovered before at various sites across Europe, but the reason behind the practice has remained a mystery in those cases.

Neanderthal
A model representing a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory, in Eyzies-de-Tayac, Dordogne. Archaeologists believe they used spears which could kill at a distance. PIERRE ANDRIEU/AFP/Getty Images
Ancient Climate Change Forced These Neanderthals Into Cannibalism | Tech & Science