Were our ancestors cannibals?

The subject of cannibalism in prehistory is one that has rumbled on in archaeological circles for quite some time and it has recently surfaced again with the publication of research into some of the human remains found in Gough’s Cave in Somerset.

How can we identify cannibalism?

Until fairly recently, it has been very difficult to identify evidence of cannibalism, but for many archaeologists the key is the analysis of any close similarities in the prehistoric treatment of the bodily remains – human and animal. This needs very precise data on the site and material found. This includes the ‘depositional context’ or layer the bones are found in, detailed excavation records, accurate study of any bone modification, and a relatively large sample of human and animal postcranial bones.

These are not always found together for sites where it has been hypothesized that cannibalism occurred. Sometimes a different story, that of secondary burial practices has been suggested. What this means is that the bones have been disturbed or damaged either by attempts to re-use the site, perhaps for burial, in prehistory.

A prime example?

Perhaps the oldest evidence of cannibalism comes from some European sites dating back to the time of Neanderthals. For example, in 1999, French researchers reported in the journal Science (http://tinyurl.com/kc5zy8e), that 100,000-year-old bones from six Neanderthal ‘victims’ found in a French cave called Moula-Guercy had been broken by other Neanderthals in such a way as to extract marrow and brains – the skulls had been smashed open and limb bones had been broken apart, presumably to extract nutritious brain tissue and remove marrow. Cut marks on bones were thought to indicate that tendons had been severed (necessary for limb removal), and that the thigh muscles had been removed.  and in at least one case a tongue taken out if marks on the mandible or jaw bone were analysed correctly. Such cut marks on the bones could have been made only by sharp flints. The researchers noted that it was interesting that only the hand and foot bones, which contain no marrow, remained intact (see more here: http://tinyurl.com/ml9b4du).

In terms of animal bones from the same site, there were no signs of gnawing which was said to rule out the possibility that the Neanderthal bones were scavenged or eaten by wild animals in the past. There were no signs of charring either, suggesting the flesh was either eaten raw or cooked off the bone. Scattered among the human remains were fragments of several animals butchered in the same manner, which were identified by the team as coming mostly from red deer.

This is not the only ‘example’ of cannibalism in prehistory. In the past decade, researchers have reported other evidence that Neanderthals continued eating each other until just before their disappearance. In Spain there was the grisly discovery at the El Sidrón cave where palaeontologists discovered that an extended family of 12 individuals had been dismembered, skinned and then eaten by other Neanderthals about 50,000 years ago (http://tinyurl.com/lm64vpy).

Cannibalism in Britain?

Whether early Homo sapiens began engaging in cannibalism is a topic of debate, but there is evidence to suggest they too were engaged in cannibalism at some time. Just last week, a story resurfaced in the magazine Science Daily about cannibalism at Gough’s Cave, a famous Palaeolithic site in Somerset (http://tinyurl.com/kxaq3jw).

 http://flickr.com/photo/62327186@N00/2551285740 using Flickr upload bot
Entrance to Gough’s Cave, Cheddar. Image by  Phillipa Crabbe. http://flickr.com/photo/62327186@N00/2551285740 using Flickr upload bot

This is based on a recent re-examination of material from excavations which shows, according to researchers at the Natural History Museum in London that:

“Experimental work has confirmed that at least some of their bones were chewed by human teeth. Others show cut marks where soft tissue was meticulously removed. Three skulls were carefully shaped to create cups or bowls. The painstaking preparation of such human skull-cups, as well as the apparent abundance of animal meat, suggest that there was more involved than cannibalism to satisfy hunger. Instead, it seems likely that the people of Gough’s cave ate their contemporaries and preserved their skulls as part of a ritual.” There is a short video which details some of the evidence for thus making and use of skull cups here http://tinyurl.com/lsq425o

For most archaeologists cannibalism is a ‘fact’, but the jury is still out, as they say, as to quite how widespread this practice was or indeed what it meant to the people involved. Was it meant to take on the power of the ancestor? Were victims sacrificed? Did people volunteer to be eaten? We’ll probably never know the whole story, but it remains something from our past that, for many, will always be troubling.



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