Who’s for Din­ner

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists find clues about the pur­pose of an­cient can­ni­bal­ism

Newsweek - - CONTENTS - BY HAN­NAH OS­BORNE @han­nah__os­borne

AR­CHAE­OL­O­GISTS HAVE long known that hu­mans have been eat­ing hu­mans for thou­sands of years, but they aren’t al­ways clear on why. A newly dis­cov­ered hu­man bone en­graved 15,000 years ago has fleshed out the in­com­plete pic­ture of this an­cient prac­tice, pro­vid­ing per­sua­sive ev­i­dence that some Pa­le­olithic hu­mans en­gaged in can­ni­bal­ism as part of a mys­te­ri­ous ri­tual.

In Au­gust, a team led by Sil­via Bello, of the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum in Lon­don, found an en­graved zigzag pat­tern on a right arm bone found at Gough’s Cave in Som­er­set, Eng­land. Added to bones from sev­eral peo­ple found there pre­vi­ously that were scarred with cuts and mod­i­fied into drink­ing ves­sels, the new ar­ti­fact sup­ports their the­ory that the prac­tice was in part cer­e­mo­nial.

From the de­tailed im­age de­scribed in the study, pub­lished in PLOS One, Bello and her team de­duced that the en­grav­ing was made af­ter the meat was re­moved but be­fore the bone was bro­ken to ex­tract the mar­row. “They took some time. They paused,” says Bello. That break in the feast im­plies the act of etch­ing had mean­ing, says Bello.

The pur­pose of the ri­tual is un­known. Based on stud­ies of can­ni­bal­ism else­where, Bello be­lieves it was part of a fu­neral prac­tice, al­though the ev­i­dence is too scant to be cer­tain.

She hopes DNA anal­y­sis will de­ter­mine if the in­di­vid­u­als whose bones have been found at the cave were re­lated and if the en­graved fore­arm be­longed to any of them. Such de­tails could pro­vide clues about the eat­ing cer­e­mony. “We want to know more about what this group was,” says Bello. “Were they eat­ing some­one ex­ter­nal or some­one from within the group?” They also want to com­pare the en­grav­ings with bones found at other Pa­le­olithic sites in Europe where ev­i­dence of can­ni­bal­is­tic rites has been found.

Locating sim­i­lar ar­ti­facts is cru­cial for un­der­stand­ing th­ese an­cient hu­mans, says James Cole, an ar­chae­ol­o­gist from the Univer­sity of Brighton, who stud­ies can­ni­bal­ism. “There is a deep so­cial and cul­tural be­hav­ior em­bed­ded within this act.”

In other words, ri­tual can­ni­bal­ism may have been the an­cient equiv­a­lent of an af­ter-din­ner drink af­ter a spe­cial meal.

MEAL DEAL: At Gough’s Cave, left, Pa­le­olithic hu­mans en­gaged in can­ni­bal­ism. Bones found there, above, im­ply this eat­ing had a rit­u­al­is­tic pur­pose.

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