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Evidence Suggests Skulduggery Among the Neanderthals

Anthropology: Scientists say an ancient skull was violently hacked by a machete-like object. With assistance, the victim survived.

April 23, 2002|From the Washington Post

Neanderthals dissatisfied with their colleagues' behavior apparently dealt with their anger in much the same way as modern humans do today. They were quite willing to bash enemies over the head, and quite adept at seeking out the best available weapon for the job.

In a new analysis released Monday, anthropologists suggested that the hole in the head of a young adult Neanderthal who died about 36,000 years ago, near what is now the village of St. Cesaire in southwestern France, was probably made by someone who sliced open the skull with a machete-like knife or sword. Equally important, the victim got enough help from family and friends to survive the experience.

"Aggression just forms part of human behavior," said Christoph Zollikofer of the University of Zurich, leader of the team of researchers from France and Switzerland who examined the skull. Humans "need reconciliation and affection as well, and the experience here suggests a broad spectrum of behaviors."

The St. Cesaire site, discovered in 1979, is celebrated because it dates from the "transitional" period when Neanderthals, masters of the European Ice Age, were being displaced by anatomically modern immigrants from Africa, either by assimilation or extermination.

Scar Indicates Skull Was Sharply Slashed

Zollikofer said the team was doing a computer-assisted reconstruction of the St. Cesaire skull when it noticed a 2.7-inch-long scar in the bone on the top right-hand side.

The position of the cut all but ruled out an accidental fall, while the shape of the wound and the fact that the rest of the skull was neither fractured nor misshapen indicated a slashing or hacking motion with a sharp, blade-like tool or weapon, rather than a club or ax.

"There was almost certainly a flint cutting edge, and it was hafted onto a wooden handle," said Neanderthal specialist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis, commenting on Monday's announcement. "What you had was a large machete-like implement, except that we don't have the wood."

Zollikofer said scarring of the bone showed that the victim survived. Had the wound been fatal, the bone would not have regenerated, and scientists could not have distinguished the head trauma from the effects of weather or site damage.

"It was a serious wound, in that it would have bled pretty seriously," Trinkaus said. "Even though there was no pushing of bone down into the brain case, it would have [really] hurt. . . ."

And survival without infection would have meant that other members of the community would have had to tend the victim. Earlier research by Trinkaus and others has shown that Neanderthals cared for the sick and infirm, and the latest findings simply close the loop, Zollikofer said.

Violence "is natural behavior among social primates," Zollikofer said. "The biggest difference between apes and hominids [humans and human ancestors] is the involvement of tools."

And this, Trinkaus added, makes violent encounters much more dangerous. "As weaponry increased in sophistication, the risk of serious injury went up," he said. "If all you have is your fist, the injury isn't that bad."

Even though early modern humans had appeared in Europe by the time of the Neanderthals' St. Cesaire habitation, there is no evidence they were in the area at that moment, and Zollikofer said it was unlikely the young Neanderthal had been hurt in some form of inter-species war.

Instead, domestic violence, then as now, was the most likely cause: "You encounter your group members each day," Zollikofer said. "And we think that with the very low population density then, you were highly unlikely to meet somebody else."

Still, he added, "almost anything is possible." A weapon of the type that inflicted the wound to the young Neanderthal was not found at St. Cesaire, but Trinkaus said Neanderthals had the technology to accomplish the job, as did modern humans.

In fact, added Trinkaus, modern humans had throwing spears and other weapons that enabled them to hunt large animals from a distance, while Neanderthals' heavy, pike-like spears required closer, more dangerous work.

That's probably why the skeleton of almost any Neanderthal adult shows evidence of three or four broken bones, mostly in the upper body. Trinkaus compared these characteristic Neanderthal injuries to those of today's rodeo cowboys.

"But we don't see any breaks of major long bones in the legs," he said. "The interpretation is that either this is because the injuries all involve close encounters with large animals, or, if someone broke a leg, they simply got left behind."

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