Who’s for Dinner
Archaeologists find clues about the purpose of ancient cannibalism
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.