Archaeologists working at an Ice Age excavation in southern France have uncovered the most conclusive evidence yet that Neanderthals practiced cannibalism.

At the Moula-Guercy cave site on the banks of the Rhone River, a French-led team has analyzed 78 Neanderthal bone fragments scarred and shattered in such a way to indicate that at least six individuals had been systematically butchered.

The tendons were cut, the joints torn apart, the flesh stripped away and large bones and skulls systematically broken open, apparently to remove marrow and brains. Only feet and hands were left intact.

Tim White, the forensics expert who examined the remains, said he hoped the evidence from Moula-Guercy "will resolve" the often bitter debate over whether cannibalism existed among human ancestors.

But he acknowledged that the find will probably do little to quell arguments over how widespread cannibalism was in the prehistoric past or whether it was practiced as part of rituals or for food.

"It's so tough to get at cause," said White, an integrative biologist at the University of California at Berkeley. "I suspect that the incidence of this behavior in Neanderthals is very high, much higher than anything we have observed in modern hunters and gatherers."

The French team, led by Alban Defleur, of Marseille's Universite de la Mediterranee, reported on its analysis in today's edition of the journal Science. Defleur has been excavating the site in France's Ardeche region since 1991.

The team found the Neanderthal bones intermingled with 392 identifiable animal bones, most belonging to red deer, at an excavation level dated between 120,000 and 100,000 years ago. At that time, the beetle-browed, heavily muscled Neanderthals were the only hominids known to be living in Europe. They mysteriously disappeared about 35,000 years ago.

The new report describes a cave encampment about 12 feet wide and 15 feet long, with animal and human bones scattered indiscriminately around a pair of fire pits. The bones came from at least six individuals: two adults, one of them very large, two adolescents 15 or 16 years old, and two children, ages 6 or 7.

White said that past Neanderthal excavations have shown evidence of cannibalism, most notably at a Croatian site discovered at the turn of the century. But that excavation and five others where Neanderthal cannibalism is suspected were controversial because they had not been analyzed with the meticulous care exercised at Moula-Guercy.

"I was just happy to have a site that had been excavated properly," said White, who has studied cannibalism among early hominids for more than 20 years. "Finally I had a crime scene that had been preserved without the cops messing it up."

As White explained, the key element in ascribing cannibalism to any site is to match the markings on hominid bones with those on accompanying animal remains. "Plain old cut marks do not imply cannibalism," he said. At Moula-Guercy, investigators found the same evidence on the bones of both the Neanderthals and the deer.

Striations at the ends of bones indicated joints had been cut and twisted apart with stone knives. More striations on the sides of long bones showed that muscles had been severed and peeled away. Investigators found a jawbone that had been cut from the skull of one of the children.

Finally, White said, the team was able to find large bones and skulls that had been smashed by a stone hammer against an opposing stone, or "anvil," so that marrow and brains could be removed.

While the evidence has convinced White that cannibalism occurred at the cave of Moula-Guercy, he said he realizes that "there are people who are into denial who will certainly say this is a bizarre mortuary practice that also involves deer."

Indeed, while anthropologists have hypothesized cannibalism among hominids at least as early as a half-million years ago, it remains a subject of highly charged debate.

"We've opened the door on the last taboo," said Arizona State University anthropologist Christy G. Turner II, who has stirred controversy for decades because of his studies of apparent cannibalism involving the Anasazi people of the American Southwest between 900 and 1200 A.D.

Skepticism about the practice has arisen in part because of the explorers, missionaries and conquistadors who traditionally reported it. "To accuse the other side of doing it is to show your contempt for somebody else," said Neanderthal expert Erik Trinkaus, of Washington University. "It's a way to show that they're subhuman."

But to dismiss cannibalism as a fiction is "silly," White said, given the evidence. "I get the full gamut from colleagues who ask me, 'How do you prove that?' " Moula-Guercy has satisfied him, he said, but others "may have some problems accepting this."

Beyond the fact of cannibalism, however, lies the more difficult question of "why." Turner hypothesizes that invaders from a Mesoamerican religious cult used it as a terrorist weapon to control the Anasazi.

Trinkaus suggests that starvation may have motivated Moula-Guercy's Ice Age hunters. "If they're cutting off tiny muscles from children and smashing the thigh bones of adults, it suggests they were very hungry," he said. "They were highly stressed, and the fact that they are doing it [cannibalism] occasionally doesn't concern me."

But White said he suspects the practice was much more widespread among the Neanderthal. He noted that Ice Age cannibalism over a period of more than 70,000 years has been reported at sites from France to Croatia. "Something was going on that we don't understand," White said. "What was it?"

Gruesome Leftovers

Scientists believe Neanderthal bones discovered in a cave in France were the remains of a meal by fellow species members.

The Neanderthal bones

Have cut marks and gashes that indicate they were stripped of their flesh and broken apart with a hammerstone and anvil to remove the marrow.

Were found intermingled with deer bones scored with similar cut marks.

Are 100,000 to 120,000 years old.

SOURCE: Science, American Museum of Natural History