New evidence found for violence among Neanderthals

Sunday, May 5, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Perhaps it was a fight over food or a mate. For some reason, someone whacked a Neanderthal over the head with a sharp weapon 36,000 years ago in what is now France.

A team of Swiss and French scientists that studied the result of this ancient violence speculated that it was most likely the result of conflict with someone in his own group.

"As weaponry for hunting improves the stakes of having an argument with somebody increase. Like all social mammals, Neanderthals had their squabbles, and if you have effective weaponry around you've got a more serious problem," commented anthropologist Erik Trinkaus of Washington University in St. Louis.

Milford H. Wolpoff, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, agreed.

"When you look at crime statistics today, the vast majority of all crimes are between people who know each other ... and I don't see any reason to question that in the past," Wolpoff commented.

The European team, led by Christoph P. E. Zollikofer of the University of Zurich-Irchel, used computer imaging to help reconstruct the Neanderthal skull found near the village of St. Cesaire, France.

They also found that the wound had begun healing, indicating that somebody helped nurse the victim, who would have been at least temporarily incapacitated by such a blow.

Wolpoff added: "We always focus on the violence that created the wound, but what's great is the compassion and care that lead to the healing."

Neanderthals flourished in Europe and the Middle East from about 100,000 years ago until they were replaced by early modern humans about 35,000 years ago.

Many of their remains show injuries, but these fractures differ from the St. Cesaire skull, which was cut by a sharp blade, probably on a handle.

It's not unlike the injuries encountered in swordfights, Trinkaus commented. He said that the best modern comparison would be a stone weapon approximating a machete.

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