When global warming changed the world of Neanderthals, some adopted a dreadful dinner practice.
Six Neanderthals living in what is now France were devoured by their Neanderthal companions about 100,000 years ago, according to the horrific evidence of the cannibalistic event discovered by scientists in a cave in the 1990s.
Now, researchers may have discovered why Neandertals, including two children, became victims of cannibalism: global warming.
While previous studies have interpreted the remains of Neanderthal to find evidence of cannibalistic behavior, this is the first study to offer clues as to what may have led the Neanderthals to become cannibals. Scientists discovered that rapid changes in local ecosystems as the planet warmed could have extinguished the animal species that Neanderthals ate, forcing them to look elsewhere to fill their bellies. [25 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]
The researchers examined a layer of sediment in a cave known as Baume Moula-Guercy, in southeastern France. There, excavations in 1999 by another team of scientists had discovered 120 Neanderthal bones from six individuals that showed signs of cannibalism.
Later, in 2014, another group of researchers badyzed the cave deposits at a depth of 26 feet (8 meters), dividing them into 19 layers badociated with three climatic changes. For the new study, the authors turned their attention to layer 15, a layer of silty sediment about 16 inches (40 centimeters) thick, covering approximately 98 to 131 feet (30 to 40 m) from the floor of the cave .
In that layer, charcoal and animal bones were so well preserved that scientists were able to reconstruct an environmental snapshot that represents 120,000 to 130,000 years ago. They discovered that the climate in the area was probably even warmer than it is today, and that the transition from a cold, arid climate to a warmer one happened quickly, "maybe in a few generations," said study co-author Emmanuel. Desclaux, badociate researcher at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis in France, told Cosmos magazine.
As the animals that once populated the landscape disappeared, some Neanderthals ate what they could find: their neighbors.
Cannibalism is by no means exclusive to Neanderthals, and has been practiced by humans and their families "from the Early Paleolithic to the Bronze Age and beyond," the study authors reported. The behavior adopted by the hungry Neanderthals in Baume Moula-Guercy, therefore, should not be seen as "a mark of bestiality or sub-humanity", but as an emergency adaptation to a period of severe environmental stress, according to the study.
The findings were published online in the April issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.
Originally published in Living science.