| 8 August 2009
Archaeologists reveal cannibalism link to early Britons
A human bone found in Devon (England) with tool cuts thought to have been made during a ritual ceremony 9,000 years ago may be evidence of cannibalism. Torquay Museum staff identified the human arm bone as they documented animal remains discovered in Kents Cavern in Torquay. Scientists who examined the bone believe the marks on the bone show flesh was removed from it, or that dismemberment took place shortly after death. The bone's marks are thought to have been made by stone tools and could indicate a ritual - or that the victim was devoured by other people. The caves are the oldest Scheduled Ancient Monument in Britain.
The bone was first unearthed in 1866 by archaeologist William Pengelly, who spent 15 years excavating the cavern. It was put into storage in the museum and "rediscovered" in December 2008. It was found as part of a cataloguing programme, which has been examining about 15,000 animal bones excavated from the cavern that had been housed in the museum's store. The museum's researchers found the butchered bone in June, and, working with the University of Oxford's School of Archaeology and Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, identified it as a fragment of human arm bone. It was then radiocarbon dated to 8,185 years BP [Before Present, an archaeological term meaning before 1950].
Tom Higham, from the radiocarbon unit, said: "The bone was particularly well preserved and the result is seen as very reliable." Dr Rick Schulting, of the University of Oxford's School of Archaeology, said: "There are intentional cut marks on there, and it seems the bone has been intentionally split. These two together can raise the possibility of cannibalism. The location of the fracture, right at the elbow, is where the cut would be made if dismemberment had taken place." The fact the markings are all in the same place indicate they were made to remove muscle attachments from the bone while it was still "fresh", Dr Schulting said. The archaeologist said cannibalism was just one possibility, and that the markings could have been part of a ritualistic burial process. He added: "These cuts may have been made to help the body decompose more quickly and speed up the process of joining the ancestors. Finds like this highlight the complexity of mortuary practices in the Mesolithic period, many thousands of years before the appearance of farming in the Neolithic period, which is more usually associated with complex funerary behaviour."
The museum said only one other site in Britain had yielded similar human remains with cut marks of this age - Gough's Cave at Cheddar Gorge. "Some archaeologists have interpreted these marks as evidence of cannibalism, but ritual burial practice or dismemberment for transportation has not been ruled out," a museum spokesman said. The bones are on display at the Ancestors exhibition at Torquay Museum until September 6.
Sources: BBC News, 24dash.com, Guardian.co.uk (7 August 2009)
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