Studying bones found in an ancient Belgian cave, scientists found evidence our ancestors ate horses, reindeer, and other humans. The prehistoric remains showed definitive signs of cannibalism, including hammer-like markings and cuts left by makeshift knives to remove the flesh.

Undeniable evidence

According to an article published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists found “unambiguous evidence” of cannibalism practiced by Neanderthals living in the region nearly 45,000 years ago. When assembled, the bones formed five humans, four adults and one child.

No definitive answer

Previous studies of prehistoric sites in France, Portugal, and Spain also uncovered proof of Neanderthal cannibalism. However, the Belgian site is farther north and is dated closer to the end of the Neanderthals’ existence. The real question researchers have yet to answer is why did they eat each other? Some speculate it was part of a ceremony, while others think it may have been out of desperation.

Emotional ties

Paleoanthropologists have studied the funeral rituals of Neanderthals for decades. Evidence found suggests the prehistoric hominins mourned the dead and were emotionally connected to one another. Discovered in the 1970s, a Neanderthal skeleton known as “Shanidar IV” was buried with flowers as ancient pollen was found in the grave.

Recently, some scientists have refuted that evidence by proposing the flowers were more likely left by animals.

Ancient appetite

Yet, paleoanthropologists involved in the Goyet, Belgium study are sticking to the cannibalism theory. The 96 bones and three teeth found were from five individuals. Many of the bones had obvious tool marks from someone chopping them apart or ripping the flesh away.

The rib cages had been pulled open as well. The bones were found scattered among other animal remains with similar marks.

Neanderthal behavioral differences

Studying other sites close to the area and dated to the same time period, scientists failed to find any indication of cannibalism. One cave about 20 miles away contained two skeletons that looked as if they were buried together.

Since Neanderthals lived in close-knit groups, researchers think behaviors varied among them. Some may have mourned their dead, whereas others devoured them. Conflict or deprivation may have also fueled the cannibalism.

Desperate times

Roughly 40,000 years ago, Neanderthals went extinct. When these early people were butchered and eaten, they were on the brink of disappearing. During this early period, modern humans had not yet arrived the region. As such, the scientists are confident the Neanderthals ate their own kind.