Thursday, November 20, 2008

Cannibalism at Zafarraya?

The site of Zafarraya (or in full Cueva del Boquete de Zafarraya), in southern Spain, is most famous for having yielded the most recent radiometrically dated Neanderthal remains known to date (Hublin et al. 1995, Barroso Ruiz and De Lumley 2006). This is in contrast to Gorham's Cave, Gibraltar, which has been claimed to contain the most recent Mousterian assemblages known to date (Finlayson et al. 2006; cf. Zilhao and Pettitt 2006).

Cecilio Barroso Ruiz, one of the investigators who excavated Zafarraya, has given a short interview about some of the material that has been found at the site. He interprets the lithic and faunal material as suggesting that the site was occupied between 30-27,000 BP as a camp from which Neanderthals would hunt mountain goats. Barroso Ruiz also suggests that climate should be ruled out as the main cause of the disappearance of the Neanderthals since Mediterranean conditions would have prevailed around the site throughout that period.

One of the more provocative interpretations he proposes, however, is that the site has yielded "indisputable" evidence of Neanderthal cannibalism:

During the excavation, that took place in two stages - between 1981-1983 and between 1990-1994 - two femora and a tibia belonging to a female and a small male mandible were recovered, all of which bear "irrefutable" traces of cannibalism. "They would begin by taking the body apart, removing the meat, and after having eaten it, they would throw the bones in the fire where they would burst" explains Barroso. During analysis (that involved the participation of 90 specialists), the bones were pieced back together, bringing to light the cut marks of cannibalistic practices. "It has been said that Neanderthals buried their young, but we have shown that this wasn't the case here, since they appear to have been used as food following their death" concludes the archaeologist. (my translation)

In light of a recent study that argues against the case for cannibalism at Krapina, Croatia, such claims from Zafarraya take on a new importance. Interestingly, if the case for cannibalism at El Sidron (Rosas et al. 2006) is eventually demonstrated unambiguously, it might suggest that cannibalism might have been somewhat more common than elsewhere in the Iberian peninsula towards the end of the periods during which recognizably Neanderthal remains are documented in the fossil record.

Hat tip: Martin Cagliani.


Barroso Ruiz, C., and H. de Lumley (eds.). 2006. La Grotte du Boquete de Zafarraya (Malaga, Andalousie) vol. 3, Junta de Andalucía, Consejería de Cultura, Sevilla.

Finlayson, C, Giles Pacheco, F, Rodríguez-Vidal, J, Fa, DA, Guiterrez López, JM, Santiago Pérez, A, Finlayson, G, Allue, E., Baena Preysler, J, Cáceres, I, Carrión,
JS, Fernaández- Jalvo, Y, Gleed-Owen, CP, Jimenez Espejo, FJ, López, P, López Sáez, JA, Riquelme Cantal, JA, Sánchez Marco, A, Giles Guzman, F, Brown, K, Fuentez, N, Valarino, CA, Villalpando, A, Stringer, CB, Martinez Ruiz, F & Sakamoto, T 2006.
Late survival of Neanderthals at the southernmost extreme of Europe. Nature 443:850-853.

Hublin J.J., Barroso Ruiz C., Medina Lara P., Fontugne M., Reyss J.-L., 1995 - The Mousterian site of Zafarraya (Granada, Spain): dating and implications on the palaeolithic peopling processes of Western Europe. C. R. Acad. Sc. Paris. 321 (IIa): 931-937

Rosas A, Martínez-Maza C, Bastir M, García-Tabernero A, Lalueza-Fox C, Huguet R, Ortiz JE, Julià R, Soler V, de Torres T, Martínez E, Cañaveras JC, Sánchez-Moral S, Cuezva S, Lario J, Santamaría D, de la Rasilla M, and Fortea J.2006. Paleobiology and comparative morphology of a late Neandertal sample from El Sidron, Asturias, Spain. PNAS 103:19266-19271.

Zilhão, J., and P. Pettitt. 2006. On the new dates for Gorham's Cave and the late survival of Iberian Neanderthals. Before Farming 2006/3:3.

1 comment:

Anne Gilbert said...

I'm not claiming Neandertals were cannibals, nor am I claiming they weren't. And it's perfectly possible that conditions toward the end of the period of Neandertal existence were so deteriorated in the Iberian Peninsula, that they were reduced to eating each other. I don't know. But every time one of these claims come up, I sort of wonder about them. They might be truly and unambiguously scientific, or they might be some sort of "projections" on the part of the workers. And I'm in no position to evaluate these things.
Anne G