Friday, October 03, 2008

Cannibalism at Krapina - or not!

The issue of Neanderthal cannibalism has a long history and a number of important behavioral implications, some of which I've already discussed in a prior post. Two sites are usually invoked to make the case for Neanderthal cannibalism, Moula-Guercy in France (Defleur et al. 1999), and Krapina, in Croatia. A good review of the abundant literature on Krapina up to 2006 is available freely in pdf format (Frayer 2006), should you be interested. Krapina is especially important because of the large number of highly fragmented Neanderthal remains (800+) that have been found there - indeed, the fragmentary nature of the remains has been intimately linked to the case for cannibalism, being often interpreted as evidence of bones being broken to get at the marrow they contained.

So it's with great interest that I saw a paper by Jörg Orschiedt (2008), in the latest issue of Quartär. It's in German, but the English abstract reads as follows:

The Krapina case – New results on the question of cannibalism of Neanderthals.

The human skeletal remains from Krapina / Croatia of almost 900 fragments have been considered for a long time as a proof of Neanderthal cannibalism. Although this opinion was frequently criticised, the fragmentary nature and traces of manipulations on the skeletal remains were mentioned as evidence. Several investigations resulted in contradicting interpretations whether the condition of the human remains are the result of burial activities or ritual cannibalism. The re-examination of the skeletal remains was carried out in order to put a closer look to the breakage patterns and the cut marks. The revision of the inventory of human remains shows that certain skeletal elements like the facial skeleton, skull base, hand- and foot bones as well as vertebrae are underrepresented or missing. It seems therefore unlikely that the bodies were buried in anatomical connection. The investigation also proved that the breakage patterns were not caused by human activity. Although several bones especially the long bone diaphysis, clavicles and pelvis fragments display breakage patterns related to perimortem breakage like spiral fractures, any kind of human activity is absent. In fact the breakage is related to sediment pressure, particularly to rock fall, and carnivore activities. Damage on bones caused by carnivore activity is well visible by bite marks on long bone fragments and on Cranium 3.Any detailed analysis of the cut marks is problematic, since the bones were covered with shellac. Therefore, the analysis by a scanning electron microscope did not yield any significant result. The study of the cut marks revealed serious doubt on their nature. The macroscopic investigation, however, showed that the traces are not consistent regarding their orientation and location with traces commonly related to disarticulation and dismemberment activities. Cut marks related to this kind of activity usually occur in areas of muscle attachments and joints. Several cut marks show evidence for a recent origin. The most striking evidence for this is found on a long bone splinter of a diaphysis. The cut marks located on this fragment cut through the “F” [for femur] written in ink of the bone. The shellac was added only later covering the bone. It seems possible in only two cases that cut marks on two scapulae were caused by dismembering activities. The well known Cranium 3 exhibits possible cut marks on the frontal bone, which might indicate skinning activities like the removal of the scalp. Nevertheless the position and the small size of the marks fail to prove such an activity. A ritual behaviour might be a possible explanation.

If this taphonomic analysis is correct, it certainly throws a sizable wrench into the argument for one of the most celebrated cases for Neanderthal cannibalism. The possible evidence for scalping is also very intriguing.


Defleur, A., T. White, P. Valensi, L. Slimak, and É. Crégut-Bonnoure. 1999. Neanderthal Cannibalism at Moula-Guercy, Ardèche, France. Science 286:128-131.

Frayer, D. W. 2006. The Krapina Neandertals. A Comprehensive, Centennial, Illustrated Bibliography. Zagreb: Croatian Natural History Museum.

Orschiedt, J. 2008. Der Fall Krapina – Neue Ergebnisse zur Frage von Kannibalismus beim Neandertaler. Quartär 55:63-81. (with English abstract).


Anne Gilbert said...

But what, if anything, does it say about Moula-Guercy? And what does this whole "Neandertal cannibalism" issue say about the way a lot of people tend to view Neandertals(if some group is said to practice "cannibalism", they are often considered less than "human")? And if the Krapina remains look like "cannibalism", but were actually chewed up by --- whatever --- then perhaps does that mean that the Krapina remains were buried and reburied as some have suggested? I don't have any answers to this, only a lot of questions.
Anne G

Julien Riel-Salvatore said...

Anne -
in answer to your question, this new study doesn't say anything about the identification of cannibalism at Moula-Guercy. It's focuses on Krapina and highlights some very interesting patterns of post-mortem modification of the human remains, only a very small part of which appear to have been induced by other humans.

However, it does undermine the case for widespread cannibalism at Krapina. In that sense, it demonstrates that Neanderthal cannibalism, while it existed, may have been even rarer than previously thought.


Anne Gilbert said...

I raised Moula Guercy sort of rhetorically. As you know, the claim was that it "confirmed" Neandertal cannibalism. My problem with the whole "Neandertal cannibalism" issue, whether at Krapina, Moula Guercy, or somewhere else, is not whether or not they "ate each other", but rather the context it might have occurd in. IOW, did they eat someone who "wouldn't make it"(eat me so the tribe can continue"? Did they consume Auntie Sue or Grandpa Joe because they loved them so much they ate them?(a type of "ritual"), or did they eat parts of their enemies? There's just no way to know the answer to these questions, but it doesn't stop some people from raising the issue. In the case of Krapina, if this article is anything to go by, it's obvious that what appears to be cannibalism, may in fact be something else.
Anne G

Anonymous said...

Hi man, thanks for a great blog... But Krapina, come on. Why can't people just accept a sliver of parsimony here? There are exactly 0 proven cases of neanderthal perimortem rituals, but Moula-Guercy demostrated unquestionable cannibalism. If you take a look at the truckload of contenders (Zafarraya, El Sidron, Hortus, Vindija, Krapina, Feldhofer etc), do you think there is anything to any of these sites that warrants a different aetiology than M-G? I think not.

JoannaRuth said...

I realize this is an old posting, but I came across it as I was doing research for a term paper and I have a quick question if you don't mind. I've just read Trinkaus's 1985 paper, "Cannibalism and Burial at Krapina" in the Journal of Human Evolution and from what I can tell from this abstract, the general idea is the same (though not the part about scalping or the inked "F"). Unfortunately, I do not read German. Have you read this article in the German, are you familiar with Trinkaus's paper and if the answer is yes to both, do you have any thoughts on their similarities?