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Ancient Carnivores Had a Taste for Neanderthal Meat

Researchers link bite marks on a Neanderthal skull to the fangs of an ancient big cat

Unearthed at the Cova Negra site in Spain, skull fragments from a Neanderthal child have telltale punctures in the right parietal region. (IPHES)
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Neanderthal hunters may themselves have been prey for big cats and other carnivores. According to a recent study, some punctures on Neanderthal fossils are likely bite marks from large carnivore attacks.

Scientists know what the average Neanderthal ate, how they hunted, who they mated with, how they divvied up chores and to some degree where they crossed paths with large carnivores. Evidence from archaeological and paleontological sites indicates that Neanderthals scavenged the leftovers of big carnivores, hunted them and even competed with them for cave shelters.

Recently, a team of Spanish researchers used modern cases of carnivore attacks on humans to see if bite marks on Neanderthal bones bore similarities. Looking at 124 recent case of attacks by lions, tigers, bears, leopards and other carnivores on modern humans, they found similarities to marked bones in the fossil record during the Pleistocene between 40,000 and 200,000 years ago. The group posits that bite marks could have been the result of a carnivore attack. However, it's unclear how often these attacks might have occurred.

In one case, they pinpointed the carnivorous perpetrator. Puncture marks in the skull of a young Neanderthal child unearthed in a cave in Valencia, Spain, resemble those from modern big cat attacks. Their results appear in this month's issue of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.

Understanding how Neanderthals interacted with big cats and other contemporary predators could perhaps inform how we share our own environment with large wildlife. "The conflict between humans and large carnivores has been present and constant throughout human evolution, enduring even to modern times," the researchers write. Though modern humans outcompeted Neanderthals for resources, it's possible that carnivore threats exacerbated their demise, they argue.

Given that Neanderthals lived amid these predators, perhaps it's not too surprising that some of the hominids met their end at the jaws of a ferocious animal.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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