Scientists have found signs of gnawing and butcher marks on human leg, rib, other bones in a cave in the Cheddar Gorge in western England, dating from 14,700 years ago, which they believe is evidence of ritual cannibalism.
Biological anthropologist Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum in London and her colleagues found microscopic evidence that the bodies were butchered in a similar way to those of nonhuman animals found in the cave.
Bello’s team reported their research in the Journal of Human Evolution.
A recurring theme of late Upper Palaeolithic Magdalenian human bone assemblages is the remarkable rarity of primary burials and the common occurrence of highly fragmentary human remains mixed with occupation waste at many sites.
One of the most extensive Magdalenian human bone assemblages comes from Gough’s Cave, a sizeable limestone cave set in Cheddar Gorge (Somerset), UK…
The excavations uncovered intensively-processed human bones intermingled with abundant butchered large mammal remains and a diverse range of flint, bone, antler, and ivory artefacts.
The team used new ultrafiltrated radiocarbon techniques to discover that the human remains were deposited over a very short period of time, possibly during a series of seasonal occupations, about 14,700 years ago.
We identify extensive evidence for defleshing, disarticulation, chewing, crushing of spongy bone, and the cracking of bones to extract marrow. The presence of human tooth marks on many of the postcranial bones provides incontrovertible evidence for cannibalism. In a wider context, the treatment of the human corpses and the manufacture and use of skull-cups at Gough Cave have parallels with other Magdalenian sites in central and western Europe. This suggests that cannibalism during the Magdalenian was part of a customary mortuary practice that combined intensive processing and consumption of the bodies with ritual use of skull-cups.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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