In 1994, deep in the El Sidron cave system in northern Spain, the bodies of 13 cannibalized Neanderthals were found. They lived around 50,000 years ago. Modern forensic techniques determined that they had been cannibalized. The skulls were cracked open to extract the bone marrow. Their tongues and brains had been eaten. The group consisted of a family of 7 adults, three teenagers, & 3 children.
The El Sidron cave system is approximately 12,000 feet long, featuring a central gallery of about 600 feet long. In prehistoric times, it would have been a great place to shelter. When the bones were initially discovered in 1994, it was thought that they were of Spanish civil war soldiers. During the war, republican soldiers used the cave to hide in.
Later analysis revealed they were much older.
When it was discovered that the bones were more than 50,000 years old, a more thorough investigation commenced. The cave was then thoroughly excavated from 2000 to 2013. The bones were all discovered in the same part of the cave called the Ossuary Gallery or Tunnel of Bones.
Anomalies found in the bones strongly suggested inbreeding was commonplace. Inbreeding indicates the local Neanderthal population to be pretty low. Neanderthals fell off the fossil record about 40,000 years ago, so this group could be a strong indicator of why they eventually went extinct. They slowly broke into smaller and smaller groups and were not able to interbreed properly. This would cause significant inbreeding, leading to a host of disorders that weaken the species—ultimately leading to their demise.
The men in this group were all related, but the women appeared to be from outside the group. Meaning they weren’t completely isolated from other groups in the area. But the evidence of inbreeding within all of the individuals’ DNA suggests it was common at this point.
Evidence of Neanderthals cannibalism
The types of pitting cut marks and bones cracked open suggest other Neanderthals inflicted them. There weren’t any scratches or claw marks that a predator would inflict. The bones were found broken open so that something could extract the marrow. The individuals also suffered from malnutrition, with a diet of mostly plants, nuts, and some meat. Indicating other individuals for survival may have cannibalized them.
Over 2500 bones have been discovered at El Sidron, making it the most extensive collection of Neanderthal fossils in Europe. While excavation has ended, studies continue on the bones and artifacts found in the cave. Why aren’t I using metric?
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