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9 October 2005
Prehistoric cannibalism at Yorkshire Dales

New research on bones discovered in six Dales caves (Yorkshire, England) has revealed that farming in the area dates back thousands of years and with it a history of cannibalism. Dated bones found in caves at the western edge of the limestone uplands have been taken as evidence of rituals that involved adult skulls and other body parts along with animal bones. The macabre finds included human bones which have been smashed up and the marrow removed, leading specialists to conclude they had been at the centre of a cannibalistic ritual.
     Excavations took place in the caves during the 1920s and 30s. Material from the finds was collected by Dales farmer Tom Lord's grandfather and has finally been the subject of precise radio-carbon dating by Oxford University.
Mr Lord said: "The radio-carbon dating evidence indicates the presence of farming communities much earlier than previously thought, as early as anywhere in Britain. What is so exciting is that the dated bones were found in caves where there is clear evidence for the special treatment of human remains.The caves would not have been easy to find in the wooded landscape of that time, and are also small and generally unsuitable for normal occupation."
     At least four human skulls were found in a small cave in Giggleswick Scar during excavations around 1930. One surviving skull was directly radio-carbon dated and shown to date from about 3,600 BCE. Now experts are trying to work out why early farming communities sought out the caves and used them for ritualistic activities.
     An archaeologist and human bone specialist from King Alfred's College, Winchester, Stephany Leach, said there was evidence of adult human skulls being deliberately deposited in two caves. "By contrast, a skull was amongst the missing body parts of a man placed in a natural recess in the wall of the third cave," she said. "His jumbled up remains were mixed together with fragmentary animal bones, including domestic cattle, domestic pig and sheep. Many of the animal bones had been smashed for marrow extraction, suggesting rituals took place at the cave. The man's tibia was also deliberately smashed for marrow extraction, suggesting at least part of his body had been eaten."
     Some of the prehistoric artefacts which have been found, especially pieces of pottery, are datable on stylistic grounds, and are all from a much later period, often dating between about 3,000 BCE and 2,000 BCE.

Source: Yorkshire Post Today (8 October 2005)

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