Tim White is worried that he may have helped to pin a bad rap on the Neanderthals, the prehistoric Europeans who died out 25,000 years ago. “There is a danger that everyone will think that all Neanderthals were cannibals and that’s not necessarily true,” he says. White was part of a French-American team of paleoanthropologists who recently found conclusive evidence that at least some Neanderthals ate others about 100,000 years ago. But that doesn’t mean they were cannibalistic by nature, he stresses. Most people don’t realize that cannibal- ism is widespread throughout nature, says White, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of a book on prehistoric cannibalism.

The question of whether the Neanderthals were cannibals had long been a hotly debated topic among anthropologists. No proof had ever been found. That debate ended, however, with the recent analysis by the team of stone tools and bones found in a cave at Moula-Guercy in southern France. The cave is about the size of a living room, perched about 80 metres above the Rhone River. “This one site has all of the evidence right together,” says White. “It’s as if somebody put a yellow tape around the cave for 100,000 years and kept the scene intact.” The bones of deer and other fauna show the clear markings of the nearby stone tools, indicating the deer had been expertly butchered; they were skinned, their body parts cut off and the meat and tendons sliced from the bone. Long bones were bashed open “to get at the fatty marrow inside,” says White.

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