The earliest Europeans were cannibals

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Archaeologists have discovered the oldest Europeans, dating back 800,000 years. But far from existing in a European Garden of Eden, they appear to have been cannibals.

The evidence from a cave in northern Spain shows that the six individuals, whose bones have been found so far, were eaten by their fellow humans. It is the earliest known example of cannibalism, and victims apparently selected as prey were easy targets - women and children.

Around 80 human bones and bone fragments from at least six individuals - two adult females and four children - have been unearthed and around half the bones had cut marks on them made by sharp stone tools.

Scattered around them was other food debris - the bones of horse, deer, bison, rhino and possibly elephant - and up to 100 stone implements, many of which would no doubt have been used to chop up both the animals and the humans. In some cases the bones had been broken open in order to extract the highly nutritious marrow.

The Spanish archaeologists who have found the remains - inside the entrance of a former cave at Atapuerca near Burgos, in northern Spain - believe that the six victims and presumably the cannibals themselves belong to a previously unknown human species which they have called Homo antecessor ("Ancestor Man").

In a scientific paper published in the American-based academic journal, Science, today, the Spanish team proposes that, in Europe, the newly discovered species eventually evolved into Neanderthal Man.

But they also believe that around one million years ago, Homo antecessor arrived in Europe from Africa (probably via the Middle East) and that those Homo antecessor humans who stayed in Africa eventually evolved into our species, Homo sapiens. According to the new theory, Ancestor Man is therefore the common ancestor of both ourselves and the Neanderthals, who became extinct around 30,000 years ago. The discovery ties in with other evidence of human occupation in Europe and the Middle East: a 1.2 million year old bone from the Caucasus and tools from one million years ago in Israel and from around 800,000 years ago in Italy.

Similar 900,000-year-old tools have also been discovered in an even deeper excavation level at the Atapuerca excavation and there are controversial suggestions of possible tools from more than one million years ago in southern Spain.

Before the discovery of the Atapuerca cannibal victims, the oldest positively identified human bone ever found in Europe was a massive lower jaw found in Germany in 1907 and thought to date from between 500,000 and 700,000 years.

The excavation is being directed by Dr Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro of Madrid's National Museum of Natural Sciences, Dr Juan Luis Arsuaga of Madrid's Complutense University and Dr Eudald Carbonell of Taragona University.