Day By Day

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Another Neanderthal Update

Using digital technology researchers have reexamined the remains of several Neanderthals excavated in Croatia a century ago and have found traces of butchery on many of the bones.
[Some of the] skull remains exhibit marks made by slicing away the ears, removing the tongue, detaching the lower jaw, and skinning the head. Lower-body fossils contain incisions created by removing muscle from bones as well as abrasions caused by scrubbing fat and gristle off bones. Cuts on pelvic and leg bones indicate that bodies lay facedown during dismemberment....

Many limb bones at the site were smashed open, perhaps to extract protein-rich marrow...

It is clear that bodies were dismembered, but there is much speculation as to why. Study director, Jill Cook of the British Museum, feels that
"the Krapina Neandertals ritually dismembered corpses in ways that must have held symbolic meaning for the group-whether or not Neandertals ate those remains."

This, she argues, shows that,
"Neandertals apparently possessed a facility for abstract thought that has often been regarded as unique to modern Homo sapiens...."

"Some kind of mortuary practice that had symbolic significance was going on at Krapina," Cook suggests. Although cannibalism might also have occurred, the bodies were systematically sliced up rather than quickly butchered, in her view. "Even eating people is a complex behavior" that likely would have included ritual of some kind, the British anthropologist notes.

The argument for ritual dismemberment was strengthened by discovery of an intricately incised skull.
a partial skull... revealed a sequence of stone-tool incisions, one of which is clearly visible... atop the head.... [I]t contains a pattern of regularly spaced, parallel grooves across the top of the head. "Someone sat with this skull in their lap and produced this extraordinary pattern with a stone tool," Cook says.

Others are less confident that ritualistic behavior was involved.
"We can't rule out some type of ritual activity at Krapina, or even cannibalism," says Fred Smith of Loyola University in Chicago. "But we can't tell for sure why these bones were processed."

Of stone-tool marks that can be seen with digital microscopy, many resemble those on butchered-animal remains at later Stone Age sites, says Paola Villa of the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder. In her view, that raises the possibility that cannibalism, devoid of ritual, occurred at Krapina.

Milford Wolpoff of the University of Michigan cautions that a preservative coating of shellac obscures the tool marks and makes them difficult to interpret.

Read the whole thing here.

The question of when and where and to what extent modern consciousness emerged within the human species is the focus of many studies. Most scholars today would assign Neandertal to a different species from ourselves. The markings on one of these skulls would suggest that ritual practice, long considered an important element of modern consciousness, may have predated the emergence of homo sapiens.



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