Neanderthals were attacked by big cats and hyenas and eaten

Italian archaeologists have unearthed the bones of nine Neanderthals from a hyena den about 100 km south-east of Rome. They think that the hyena den might have been the home of Neanderthals before it was taken over by hyenas. It got me thinking about other predators at that time who fed upon Neanderthals and quickly my research pointed to a Spanish team which discovered the bite marks of a big cat on the bones of a Neanderthal child who lived between 40,000 and 200,000 years ago.

Big cat bite injury to the skull of a Neaderthal child some 100,000 years ago
Big cat bite injury to the skull of a Neaderthal child some 100,000 years ago. Photo: IPHES.
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The bones of the Italian Neanderthals date from 50,000 to 100,000 years ago and the scientists regard the find as spectacular. It was due to a collapse caused by an earthquake opening up a cave that had been sealed for more than 60,000 years. They deduced that the Neanderthals had been killed by hyenas and then dragged back to the cave which was once the home of the Neanderthals themselves. Mario Rolfo, Professor of archaeology at Rome’s Tor Vergata University said: “Hyenas hunted them, especially the most vulnerable, like sick or elderly individuals.”

Cave in Italy containing the remains of nine Neanderthals eaten by hyenas
Cave in Italy containing the remains of nine Neanderthals eaten by hyenas. Photo: Italian Ministry of Culture/AFP/Getty

Neanderthals inhabited Eurasia from about 400,000 years ago until a little after 40,000 years ago. Their existence on the planet overlapped for several thousand years with modern humans. It is now believed that Neanderthals were smarter and more creative than we had once thought. They have been maligned by modern humans.

The Spanish scientists wanted to learn how Neanderthals interacted with big cats and other contemporary predators. There was a constant conflict between the humans and large carnivores of that era. There must have been many moments when Neanderthals crossed paths with large predators such as the big cats of the day including lions which were common in Europe of that era, the Pleistocene.

They identified the puncture marks in the skull of a young Neanderthal child, the remains of which were dug up from a cave in Valencia, Spain. The marks on the bone resemble those from modern big cat attacks.

Perhaps the early struggles of Neanderthals and early humans with ever present large predators such as lions and hyenas has left humankind with this subconscious fear of cats which is still present in many people. It is my theory that a lot of present-day people who don’t like cats are actually fearful of them and this fear can be traced back to 400,000 years ago.

The Spanish study is published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. The Italian scientists are from the Archaeological Superintendency of Latina and the University of Tor Vergata in Rome.


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