Recent discoveries in several archaeological sites of Northern Spain (in the region of Asturias) suggested a disturbing truth: The ancestors of man, the Neanderthals, often became cannibals in some circumstances. These striking findings were mainly recovered in the caves of El Sidròn and Gran Dolina. The elements of the discoveries were human bones found in 1994 by some explorers.
At the beginning, the police took them and sent the artifacts to scientists for further studies. Initially, many of them thought that these relics belonged to soldiers of the Spanish Civil War, because various rebels held camps in these caves. However, they soon realized they weren’t normal human bones, but Neanderthal ones of 50,000 years.
The remnants were in perfect condition due to their hiding place in a little tunnel which protected them from being scavenged and from erosion. There weren’t other animal bones, but only a few sharp stones (probably taken in the nearby mountains) used for skinning and de-fleshing the bodies of the victims. In fact, scientists reported that they observed many slicing, chop and deep cut marks on the surfaces of the bones. The skulls were completely smashed for eating brains, which are particularly fat and nutritious.
These bone parts belonged to at least 11 Neanderthals: three men, three women, three teenagers and two children (including one infant). By examining the mitochondrial DNA, scientists discovered the close relation between the people in the group; men had the same one, therefore they were brothers, cousins or uncles, but women had all different lineages. According to Mary Stiner, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, this suggests women had to leave their families in the occurrence of programmed “weddings” with other tribes.
However, there are a few theories about this cruel slayer. The first one is about the occurrence of famines during that period; Neanderthals starved so much that they decided to kill other peers for food. However, the dead people were closely related; therefore, there’s another theory about some cannibalistic funerary rituals, which were attempted by different Neanderthal tribes. Another one, according to José Maria Bermùdez de Castro (researcher and study coauthor), consisted in a ferocious competition for food between clans, which viciously killed young people and weaker ones to decimate the numbers of their enemies. The last theory could be about tribes’ territories; there were areas which belonged to a unique group of Neanderthals and every unauthorized trespasser had to pay … by being eaten.
The many findings in other places of similar Neanderthal bones, dating between 100,000 and 30,000 years, proved that cannibalism was a usual habit of Spanish Neanderthals during particular periods of stress and needs. However, this shows the great capability of these ancestors to adapt in each occurrence, whether more suitable or not.
Despite this gruesome custom, El Sidròn is known all around the world as one of the most important archaeological sites for the Neanderthal civilization. In fact, aside from the bones, researchers found over 400 lithic artifacts including a hand axe, denticulated tools, side scrapers and several Levallois points. Therefore, El Sidròn (as the other caves scattered around the region of Asturias) represents the key to open a new frontier in the study of the (darkest) mysteries of this past civilization.