|17 August 2017
Bones suggest cannibal ritual in ancient Britain
Archaeological evidence suggests that most cannibalism in human history occurred for complex and varied reasons. Human bones found in Gough's Cave - a sizeable limestone cave in Cheddar Gorge in the southwest of England - bear unmistakable signs of cannibalism. Researchers have previously described what seem to be drinking vessels made from human skulls among the site's remains.
Cut-marked and broken human bones are a recurrent feature of Magdalenian European sites, around 17,000-12,000 years before present, and Gough's Cave has yielded one of the most extensive Magdalenian human bone assemblages ever found, deposited on the floor of the cave along with butchered large mammal remains and pieces of flint. New carbon datings show the cave was occupied by Magdalenian hunters for a very short span of time 14,700 years ago - possibly no more than two or three human generations.
In a recent paper, Doctor Silvia Bello, an anthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London and her colleagues analyse and compare zig-zag incisions on one arm bone with hundreds of butchering marks and engravings on human and animal bones from Gough's Cave and other archaeological sites.
The marks on the arm bone match patterns on engraved animal bones found in France from the same period, suggesting it was a common motif at the time. The engraving was produced by a single individual, using one tool, during only one event. What is exceptional is the choice of human bone and the cannibalistic context in which it was produced. It appears the engraving was part of the cannibalistic practice, implying a complex ritualistic funerary behaviour never before recognised for the Palaeolithic period - the intensive processing of entire corpses to extract edible tissues.
Tool manufacture and decorative designs at Gough's Cave have close parallels with those at other European Magdalenian sites. Portable art at Gough's Cave suggests the carvers were competent and experienced in working different raw materials. Artefacts there include worked and engraved fragments of animal bones, amber pebbles, minute fragments of ivory, and three "perforated batons" - common artefacts of debated use nearly always made from reindeer antlers.
Edited from PLOS One (9 August 2017), The New York Times (10 August 2017)
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