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8 December 2009
Signs of mass cannibalism in the Neolithic

At a settlement in what is now southern Germany, the menu turned gruesome 7,000 years ago. Over a period of perhaps a few decades, hundreds of people were butchered and eaten before parts of their bodies were thrown into oval pits, a new study suggests. Cannibalism at the village, now called Herxheim, may have occurred during ceremonies in which people from near and far brought slaves, war prisoners or other dependents for ritual sacrifice, propose anthropologist Bruno Boulestin of the University of Bordeaux 1 in France and his colleagues.
     A social and political crisis in central Europe at that time triggered various forms of violence, the researchers suspect. "Human sacrifice at Herxheim is a hypothesis that's difficult to prove right now, but we have evidence that several hundred people were eaten over a brief period," Boulestin says. Skeletal markings indicate that human bodies were butchered in the same way as animals.
     Herxheim offers rare evidence of cannibalism during Europe's early Neolithic period, when farming first spread, the researchers report. Artifacts found at Herxheim come from the Linear Pottery Culture, which flourished in western and central Europe from about 7,500 to 7,000 years ago.
     Two archaeologists who have studied human bones unearthed a decade ago at Herxheim reject the new cannibalism hypothesis. In a joint statement to Science News, Jörg Orschiedt of the University of Leipzig in Germany and Miriam Haidle of Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt say that Boulestin's evidence better fits a scenario in which the dead were reburied at Herxheim following dismemberment and removal of flesh from bones. Evidence of ceremonial reburial practices has been reported for many ancient societies.
     If further work confirms large-scale cannibalism at Herxheim, "this would be very surprising indeed, simply in terms of the scale involved," remarks archaeologist Rick Schulting of the University of Oxford in England. Until now, the only convincing evidence of Neolithic cannibalism came from 6,000-year-old bones in a French cave, Boulestin holds. A 1986 report concluded that the remains of various animals and at least six people were butchered and discarded there. Again, Orschiedt and Haidle say, reburial rather than cannibalism may explain those findings.
     The German site was first excavated in 1996 and then explored again between 2005 and 2008. Pottery resting among the bones accumulated over no more than a few decades, the researchers say. Some pieces came from Neolithic sites located 400 kilometers from Herxheim. The pits that surrounded Herxheim provided no protection from invaders but may have marked a symbolic boundary for a ceremonial settlement, Boulestin proposes. At first, Boulestin's team, like Orschiedt and Haidle, thought that the dead were brought to Herxheim for ceremonial reburial. But Boulestin and his colleagues' opinion changed after they analyzed 217 reassembled human bones from one deposit, representing at least 10 individuals.
     Damage typical of animal butchery appears on the bones, including that produced by a technique to separate the ribs from the spine, the scientists say. Heads were skinned and muscles removed from the brain case in order to remove the skullcap. Incisions and scrapes on jaws indicate that tongues were cut out. Scrape marks inside the broken ends of limb bones indicate that marrow was removed. People most likely made the chewing marks found near intentionally broken ends of hand and arm bones, Boulestin says.
     Planned chemical analyses of bones from Herxheim will indicate whether some individuals grew up eating foods from distant regions, a sign that they were transported to the site. Such evidence would support either a cannibalism or reburial hypothesis. Whatever actually happened at Herxheim, facial bones were smashed beyond recognition, "giving an impression of the destruction of individual identity, a kind of psychic violence against the person," Nick Thorpe of the University of Winchester in England says.

Source: ScienceNews (3 December 2009), BBC News (6 December 2009)

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