“It’s an amazing find,” said Todd Disotell, an anthropologist at New York University. Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum of London said the report “gives us the first glimpse of Neanderthal social structures.”
All of the bones were located in a room-size space the scientists dubbed the Tunnel of Bones. They were mixed into a jumble of gravel and mud, which suggests that the Neanderthals did not die in the chamber. Instead, they died on the surface above the cave.
Their remains couldn’t have stayed there for long. “The bones haven’t been scavenged or worn out by erosion,” said Carles Lalueza-Fox of Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, a co-author of the new paper. Part of the ceiling in the Tunnel of Bones most likely collapsed during a storm, and the bones fell into the cave.
No animal bones washed into the Tunnel of Bones along with the Neanderthals’. In fact, the only other things scientists have found there are fragments of Neanderthal stone blades. And when the scientists closely examined the Neanderthal bones, they found cut marks — signs that the blades had been used to slice muscle from bone. The long bones had been snapped open. From these clues, the scientists concluded that the Neanderthals were victims of cannibalism. Scientists have found hints of cannibalism among Neanderthals at other sites, but El Sidrón is exceptional for the scale of evidence.